Hello Friends, and happy weekend! I hope this finds you and yours well in all ways as we are in full swing of winter. Here in the northeast we are preparing for a major winter storm, so this will be a (relatively) short post.
Let’s get to it! It’s Caturday! So let’s talk cats.
If you are fortunate to be the guardian of a feline, then you are blessed beyond measure. Being “owned” by a cat does have its benefits; albeit frustrations and confusions, too. But any confusion and frustrations are easily mitigated when we understand the WHY behind behaviors.
If you have been flowing with this blog for a while now, you know that house cats are:
If you have been paying attention, then you now know that all house cats need:
Proper, positive socialization to a variety of sights, sounds, and scents
Daily mental stimulation
Ability to exercise their natural instinct to hunt
Acceptable outlets for their natural behaviors
To feel safe in and around your home
Litter boxes that are spacious, clean, and the right fit for each feline’s lifestage
Appropriate and species-specific nutrition
Regular, species-specific veterinary care
Basic positive (fun) training time
Knowing all of this is only part of the pussycat puzzle. Innate Behaviors are often at the heart of these needs.
‘People have forgotten this truth,’ the fox said. ‘But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.’ ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
All in the Instincts!
Many of the behaviors we observe our feline family members displaying are closely controlled by genes. These behaviors are called innate behaviors. They are behaviors that are inborn; naturally occurring in all members of a species. Within each species, Innate behaviors are predictable. These behaviors can be performed in response to a cue (changing of the seasons, daylight, etc.) without prior experience /exposure to a particular cue.
Think of them as reflex responses/actions. Unlike behaviors such as learning to ride a bike, tie your shoe, or brush your teeth, Innate behaviors do not have to be learned or practiced.
Innate behaviors are instinctive.
They are controlled by genes and always occur in the same way.
Innate behaviors do not have to be learned or practiced.
Innate behaviors generally involve basic life functions, so it’s important that they be performed correctly.
These kinds of behaviors are also called instinctive behaviors. An instinct is the ability of an animal to perform a behavior the first time it is exposed to something that causes a response, within their body.
Our cat committee is currently creating a book for families that will discuss more of this in detail. But that’s the basics of what you need to now about today’s topic.
There is one innate behavior I would like to talk about today that really fascinates me about felines. And I really think you’ll enjoy it. It’s called Caching.
Have you ever noticed your cat trying to cover his/her food? All of our cats do it after they have finished eating if there is leftover food. Well, let’s be honest: Knox never leaves any food. -Pretty sure he’s a direct descent of Garfield.
Cats who cover their food are not unusual critters. Many more species do this behavior than most realize!
Critters Who Cache
Many animals practice the behavior of caching. Here are a few examples:
Caching behavior is the storage of food in locations hidden from the sight of both conspecifics (animals of the same or closely related species) and members of other species. For some species, the function of caching is to store food in times of surplus for times when food is less plentiful. However, there is evidence that some caching behavior is done to ripen the food. Foxes and squirrels tend to spread out their food in small caches (“scatter hoard”) so that, although one may be discovered by another animal, enough will remain.
Why Cats Cache
Cats are predators and prey. Cats who live in the wild, (feral cats, cougars, panthers, etc.) often attempt to bury uneaten food or cover a recently killed carcass. It’s believed wildcats do this to:
avoid attracting any predators to the area
attempt to not alert potential prey that a feline hunter is in the vicinity
Once the wildcat has eaten his/her fill of their prey, the cougar will cover their prey with substrate (grass, leaves, or other ground material) to protect it from spoiling or from being eaten by other animals. The cougar will usually remain in the area near his/her cache for several days, occasionally returning to feed on the carcass.
Bobcats will cover the remains of a large kill with debris such as snow, leaves, twigs or grass. The bobcat will revisit the carcass and eat again. Panthers will rake leaves and twigs over a carcass to hide the carcass from scavengers. This behavior is very common and is part of a natural and healthy wildcat. Check out these fascinating felines caching their food in the wild!
A Caching Cougar In
Below is a time-lapse video an adult female mountain lion
who has been followed by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project. This cougar is in
northwest Wyoming, caching a mule deer she killed:
In winter, it’s common for cougars to lose access to at least half of every elk they kill. Cougars tend to feed on one side of an elk at a time, and by the time they are finished with one side, the other can be wedged beneath a solid layer of compressed snow and ice, and completely inaccessible. -Mark Elbroch, Teton Cougar Project
This is important to realize because it helps us understand the foraging ecology of cougars. Cougars need to kill a specific amount of meat to meet their energetic demands for living, but they kill much more than this. In summer, bears steal their kills, and in winter, cold weather and snow steal their food. Thus, cougars are often unable to consume all of what they kill, and so they must kill again more quickly. -Mark Elbroch
On Nov 2, 2015 a hunter spotted a cougar caching her prey:
Mountain lions typically cache their kills beneath a mound of snow but when temperatures drop precipitously at night, this behavior frequently backfires. Unlike foxes, coyotes, and wolves, cougars lack the strong feet and stout claws for intensive excavation. Thus, when snows become thick ice that hinders their ability to feed, cougars abandon their kills to hunt again.
Habitats Created from
Most people think of beavers as ecological engineers, building
dams, and creating new habitats from their creations, but a new study shows mountain lions modify their
environments in a similar way.
Unlike wolves, mountain lions leave large intact pieces of dead meat on
the landscape that draw lots of species that then distribute those nutrients
far and wide. It is so important to ecosystem health to maintain carrion on the
landscape which supports a huge diversity of wildlife through supplemental
feeding, through maintenance of invertebrate community. It just goes on and on.
– Mark Elbroch, the Director of the Puma Project
I love this video below.
It’s rare footage of a subadult female cougar. In the video she’s just waking from a long
nap, and is slightly disoriented … A bit
later she is caching the elk carcass she discovered and claimed as her own.
House Cats Who Cache
Caching behavior is also quite common in house cats. A lot of folks think this is because their cat doesn’t like the food, but in fact, it’s an innate behavior inherited from their ancestors.
Even the comfy couch cats who have never set paw outside retains this feline instinct. A feline’s natural instinct is to cover food from scavengers or potential threats that might be tracking the scent. Unlike their wild cousins and dogs, House Cats are not scavengers; they are both predator and prey, so they don’t bury their leftover food to consume later; with house cats, it’s for protective purposes. But because all cats are individuals within the species, the degree to which the cat attempts to hide/bury the food depends on the individual cat’s comfort level and concern for exposed uneaten food.
What Caching Behavior Looks Like In House Cats: The cat is burying something. The cat is pawing at the carpet, kitchen tile, or dragging her front paw on the floor around their food mat, puzzle feeder, or bowl. The cat may become so focused on burying the food that he/she pushes the food mat/plate around. Some cats may pull a blanket, tissue paper, or food mat over their leftovers, if these items are nearby.
House Cats Caching Food
In this short video you can see one of our feline family members covering his food, and how similar this behavior is to cougars:
Become the Observer of Behavior.
Frustrating felines, puzzling pussycats, and bewildering behaviors common in homes with house cats. But all behavior has roots. Either it’s learned or innate. Caching is just one example of how we so often misunderstand cats and mislabel cat behavior. We label the behavior, make it wrong, or make fun of it. But this particular caching behavior works for cats; it serves an important purpose. Once we begin to understand that all behavior serves a purpose, we gain a new perspective.
We gain compassion.
We know that wildcats and house cats are learning all the time. We can choose to learn as well. It’s up to us as stewards of Mother Earth, and guardians of house cats to learn how to show respect, better communicate with them, listen better to them, and to learn something new from them every day.
“Reality is always kinder than the stories we tell about it.” – Byron Katie
A Matter of Misperceptions
Cougars, like house cats, are often misunderstood. The video below is a rare and intimate glimpse into the family lives of America’s second-largest cats. The film debunks long-held perceptions of cougars as solitary, anti-social animals and reveals their social and caring side: This footage was gathered by the conservation group Teton Cougar Project, revealing a family who is playful, affectionate, and interdependent. The footage also shows that sometimes, adult female cougars adopt orphaned kittens that would otherwise perish.
It shows how behaviors are passed down from one generation to the next, how young kittens learn from interactions with their mother and siblings, exhibiting behaviors such as stalking, caching and sharing meals.
I invite you to watch this short film, “The Secret Life of Mountain Lions”:
Use your voice for kindness, your ears for compassion, your hands for charity, your mind for truth, and your heart for love.
The other day I was taking a break from writing ourbook trilogy by tweetering around on twitter (another one of my bestdisplacement behaviors). 😉 While I was out there I came across a very cool post from Panthera, so I was inspired to learn more. I’ve been following their great work ever since a dear friend became their C.O.O., but this particular project really got my attention. It was not only about who cougars are choosing to cuddle with, but where and why.
If you are not yet aware, Panthera is not only the name of the genus within the Felidae family; Panthera is also the only organization in the world that is devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and their landscapes! Seriously. How amazing is that!? You will be stunned at the incredible conservation work they are doing around the globe, so be sure to check them out! Below is their mission statement.
Panthera’s mission is to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific leadership and global conservation action. We have brought together the world’s leading wild cat experts to direct and implement effective conservation strategies for the world’s largest and most endangered cats: tigers, lions, jaguars and snow leopards. Our approach to wild cat conservation is rooted in science and based upon decades of first hand field experience. We seek a future in which the world’s 37 wild cat species have the necessary and ongoing protection from human and environmental threats to persist and thrive in the wild. Our vision sees endangered wild cat populations rebounded, critical habitats and core populations connected by genetic and biological corridors, and a global commitment to protect these iconic species through near and distant futures.
Ever since I began working around and managing captive groups of exotic cats back in the day, I have been head over heels in love with every species of wild feline. They never cease to teach me something new and incredible. And since I happen to adore house cats and appreciate the powerful genetic link, I thought this would be a fun post to share!
Now, if you are not familiar with the word Felidae, I can explain. Think of your family. You may not be close, but you are of the same lineage. Felidae is a lineage of carnivorans colloquially referred to as “cats.” Members of this family are called “felids.” So the term “cat” refers both to felids in general and domestic cats. Your house cat belongs to the Felidae family, just like Garth, the African lion, pictured above! Pretty cool, huh?
Felids are separated into two distinct subgroups: large cats and small cats. Some of these small cats, due to a hardening of the hyoid bone, have an inability to roar. But many of them purr (as you might have read about before). Felidae consists of 2 subfamilies: Pantherinae and Felinae. We humans don’t have subfamilies, (although I am sure some people view their younger, annoying siblings this way 😉 There are a number of genus within the Felidae family. Some feline biologists only acknowledge a few genera of felids, but most agree there are 18 genera (genus) and 36 species of Felidae.
Note: A “genus” is a rank in the biological classification/taxonomy. It stands above species, and below families. A genus can include more than one species. When biologists talk about a genus, they mean one or more species of animals or plants that are closely related to each other. Below is an easy rundown of the classification of the cougar which includes genus and family.
Beyond Cool Cats
But as cool as these wild cats are, it’s important to note that if we want to understand how to provide proper conditions for house cats, we need to look at the species as a whole. And if we want to support conservation efforts, it helps to understand and appreciate the species as a whole. This post serves to do just that. So grab your coffee, tea, water, or wine, and get comfy with your cuddle-bug! We are going to take a peek at one of the house cat’s kin: The Cougar!
The puma (Puma concolor) is also commonly known as the mountain lion, cougar, panther, or catamount. This species is the most widely distributed free-ranging land mammal in the Americas. They are currently found from Northern Canada to the Southern Andes. At the time of European contact, this species occurred through most of North, Central, and South America. Today, the cougar has the greatest natural distribution of any mammal in the Western Hemisphere except for man.
The cougar is the largest cat in the genus Felis. The cougar is comparable in size to the leopard. Length varies from 59 – 108 inches with a tail length of 21 – 36 inches (I am squealing as I am thinking of such a delightful tail!). Their height ranges from 23 – 28 inches at the shoulder. Weight can vary greatly: between 75 and 250 pounds.
Felis Concolor at a Glance:
Habitat: The cougar thrives in montane, coniferous forests, lowland tropical forests, swamps, grassland, dry brush country, or any other area with adequate cover and prey.
Distribution: Western North America from British Columbia and south Alberta south through west Wyoming to California and west Texas. Also south Texas, Louisiana, south Alabama, Tennessee, and peninsular Florida.
Eastern Texas to Florida – P.c.coryi –IUCN: Endangered, CITES:Appendix I
Northeastern US and southeastern Canada Cougar – P.c. couguar – IUCN: Endangered, CITES: Appendix I
Central American Cougar – P.c. costaricensis – CITES: Appendix I
Misc: The International Species Information Service lists the current estimated number at 334 in zoos worldwide, with 119 located in the U.S.
Common Ancestry of Cats
One of the major lessons I learned from working with wild cats during the day and then coming home at night to my house cats was life changing for us all: I realized was living alongside tiny tigers, wee wildcats, and house panthers. My feral cat was amazingly similar to the African wildcat. My playful black cat was not that different from the Black Panther. My sweet orange tabby was much like a tiny tiger. My grey cat was incredibly similar to the fearless cougar.
Everything from how they hunted, where they preferred to sleep, how they groomed, how they interacted with their species, other species, their prey, and even people were eerily similar. My house cats’ bodies, needs, behavior, choices, and personalities were not worlds away from these wild cats; they were living parallel lives in many ways.
It turns out, feline science shows they are more alike that most people realize. In fact, results of mitochondrial analysis indicates that all Felidae descended from a common ancestor. And genetic evidence indicates that our modern day house cats are descendants from at least five feline founders of a group of Wildcats from 9,000 – 10,000 years ago! Cats are considered only a semi-domesticated species, because many populations are not isolated from wildcats.
“We don’t think house cats are truly domesticated. We refer to them as “semi-domesticated. They only recently split off from wild cats, and some even still breed with their wild relatives. We believe we have created the first preliminary evidence that depicts domestic cats as not that far removed from wildcat populations.” – Wes Warren, professor of genomics at the Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis
What You Don’t Know
Now before you get all judgey about exotic cats being kept in captivity, there are facts that most folks don’t know about these felines. Many are captive born. Many are rescued. Some are confiscations from the illegal animal trade, (just like this tiger recently confiscated here in California) and they are now living in zoos. Some are clones! Some are on loan from other zoos for very specific breeding purposes to preserve their species.
Some were pets, like Chloe pictured below. She was horribly mutilated through a declawing procedure. She was unable to walk, stand upright, or put any pressure on her paw pads after the horrible procedure of declawing. Thankfully, she gained a new life at Audubon after my dear friend and talented veterinarian went to great lengths to reattach her tendons. Now she is thriving.
Animal care facilities, such as zoos are not out there capturing wild cats and bringing them into captivity. Most are assisting, breeding, and caring for these cats. They are being cared for in the best way possible in captive conditions. There is more going on behind the scenes at zoos than most people realize. 100% of these efforts (at AZA accredited zoos) are dedication towards education and conservation.
Then and Now
Back in the day, we were managing big cat species with the most recent data and research available. Today, nearly twenty years later, we have learned so much more! Thanks to advances in technology we are dispelling myths, finding new facts, and using field data to better understand these covert creatures (including what happens when a Male Puma Visits a Female & Her Kitten at their recent Kill)! 😮
These tremendous advances in conservation efforts, both in and out of zoos, are contributing to the success of these species in the wild. Much of these advances are due to the technology that’s now available to capture these elusive cats on camera.
When I look back to when I was a kid in the 70’s and remember that my go-to handheld device was the Etch A Sketch , I have to laugh. Now look at what we have available in 2018! It’s amazing. As technology has improved, not only have we enabled our society to stay more connected virtually, but our ability to study mysterious and obscure animal behavior has increased.
So this brings us to our focus today: Covert Cougars & Puma’s Preferred Beds!
Strange Feline Bed Fellows
Would it surprise you to learn that house cats choose to sleep in strange places for similar reasons that big cats in the wild choose to sleep in strange places? If you think about how closely related house cats are to their wild kin, it makes purrrfect sense!
Ever wonder why your cat wants to hide in a box, or why she chooses to snooze with a cuddle buddy? Thanks to folks who are studying wild felines in the field, we know why. It turns out, there is safety in numbers even with more solitary species, and bed selection sites are not random. Where wild cats and house cats choose to snooze is based on very particular preferences and the need to stay safe and survive! And pumas, like our house cats, are more social than previously thought!
An Extinct Subspecies
As much as I am excited about this post, I am deeply saddened. Before we go on, there is some sad news to report. Effective January, 22, 2018, the eastern puma (Felis concolor couguar) is extinct. My heart sank when I learned this. Eight decades after the last confirmed sighting, wildlife biologists have concluded that the eastern puma is no more.
To help you better understand how this came to be, it’s helpful to know this subspecies’ (known) history. This now extinct cat is a subspecies of puma. The eastern puma (cougar) was originally listed as an endangered species on June 4, 1973. Historical literature indicates puma populations were mostly in Eastern North America (except for Florida and perhaps the Smoky Mountains) by the 1870s, and in the Midwest by 1900. Puma records from New Brunswick in 1932 and Maine in 1938 suggest that a population may have persisted in northernmost New England and eastern Canada. By 1900 they had all but vanished due to systematic hunting and trapping. The last one on record was killed by a hunter in Maine in 1938.
Although habitat conditions now appear to be suitable for puma presence in various portions of the historical range described for the eastern puma, the many decades of both habitat and prey losses belie the sustained survival and reproduction of this subspecies over that time.
Their disappearance was attributed primarily to persecution stemming from fear of large predators, competition with game species, and occasional depredation of livestock. Other causes of eastern puma losses during the late 1800s included declining habitat. The most recent confirmed eastern puma sightings date from the mid-1800s to around 1930. Confirmed reports of pumas in Eastern North America (outside Florida) since then have been shown to be either western puma dispersers, as in Missouri, or released or escaped animals, as in Newfoundland.
The agency opened an extensive review in 2011 into the status of the eastern cougar, a genetic cousin of the mountain lions that still inhabit much of the Western United States and of a small, imperiled population of Florida panthers found only in the Everglades. In 2015, federal wildlife biologists concluded that pumas elsewhere in the Eastern United States were beyond recovery. States now have juridiction to determine the best way to reintroduce the other subspecies of cougars into society.
The puma was documented historically in a variety of eastern habitats from the Everglades in the Southeast to temperate forests in the Northeast. Aside from presence reports, few historical records exist regarding the natural history of the eastern puma subspecies. Thankfully, in North America, breeding populations of the Puma species still occupy approximately one-third of their historical range but are now absent from eastern regions outside of Florida.
Below are quotes from the Fish and Wildlife Service explaining their ruling.
We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), determine the eastern puma (=cougar) (Puma (=Felis) concolor couguar) to be extinct, based on the best available scientific and commercial information. This information shows no evidence of the existence of either an extant reproducing population or any individuals of the eastern puma subspecies; it also is highly unlikely that an eastern puma population could remain undetected since the last confirmed sighting in 1938. Therefore, under the authority of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (Act), as amended, we remove this subspecies from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.
Our decision to remove the eastern puma from the List due to extinction is based on information and analysis showing that the eastern puma likely has been extinct for many decades, long before its listing under the Act. Eastern puma sightings have not been confirmed since the 1930s, and genetic and forensic testing has confirmed that recent validated puma sightings in the East, outside Florida, were animals released or escaped from captivity, or wild pumas dispersing eastward from western North America.
Monitoring Covert Cougars
Like other cryptic, covert carnivores with large territories, puma populations are notoriously difficult to study. These large Felids are typically solitary, elusive, and nocturnal, making spotting them very challenging. But it’s a necessity. Being able to gather reliable data on large Felid populations is crucial for effective conservation and management of this species. Tagging and following cougars with GPS technology is the standard approach, but these methods are expensive and can compromise the animal’s welfare. So scientists are also using indirect signs for monitoring this covert creature.
Indirect signs are footprints, scat, nests. Often these can be the most effective and least expensive way to detect many animals. Animal footprints are much more frequently encountered in the field than the animals themselves, and have served as the basis for population indices and estimators. Footprint surveys are also non-invasive; the animal need not be seen, captured, or handled.
Researchers are using at least three non-invasive methods to study puma populations:
camera traps (used to identify individual animals by analysis of spots and stripes
genetic analysis of hair and scat (puma poop!)
But they have learned that camera traps may underestimate accurate numbers because pumas lack distinguishing marks. The genetic analysis is accurate, but apparently finding puma poop isn’t that easy. But, thanks to scat detection dogs, biologists are now locating more scat!
Another non-invasive method being used to track these covert cougars is identifying puma prints! This can be done through tracking three signs a puma has left behind after being in an area: a Trail, Footprint, or Track
Trail = an unbroken series of footprints made by one animal
Footprint = a single impression made by a foot
Track = commonly used to describe both an individual footprint and a trail
Below is a perfect photo of a puma footprint and a puma footprint showing the placement of 25 landmark points (red circles) and 15 points derived from them and generated by the FIT script (yellow circles). These provide 40 points to enable the scientists to measure each puma’s footprint precisely.
Photos from S.Alibhai, Z.Jewell, J.Evans
A puma footprint showing the placement of 25 landmark points (red circles) and 15 points derived from them and generated by the FIT script (yellow circles). The landmark points and derived points are numbered in one sequence, providing 40 total points from which measurements (variables) of the footprint are made.
Recent Science Reveals Secrets
A relatively recent study that was part of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project (TCP), which had already shed invaluable light on other puzzling puma behaviors, enabled conservationists to learn more about this secretive species – everything from their ecological effects to their secret social lives. The study published on Nov 14, 2017 showed the results of research conducted on cougars in Yellowstone. Their goal was to determine whether a subordinate carnivore (cougar) chose bedding areas with similar characteristics in an ecosystem that supports a multi-species guild of competing predators. Basically, they wanted to learn about bed site selection among Pumas!
The video below shows curious cougars (a mother and her kittens) investigating a camera trap in the Teton mountains. In this region, Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project has discovered a great deal about the behavior and ecology of this misunderstood and charismatic cat.
I should note: In the world of Ecology, a guild is a group of species that have similar requirements and play a similar role within a community. They exploit the same kinds of resources in comparable ways. Members of a guild within a given ecosystem could be competing for resources (space, shade, or light), while also cooperating in resisting wind stresses, attracting pollinators, or detecting predators. One example of this kind of guild is the Savannah-dwelling antelope and zebra.
The name “guild” emphasizes the fact that these groups are like associations of craftsmen who employ similar techniques in plying their trade. They often are composed of groups of closely related species that all arose from a common ancestor, and they exploit resources in similar ways as a result of their shared ancestry. Several species within a single genus may constitute a guild within a community.
Other examples of guilds in nature are different insect species that collect nectar in similar ways, various bird species that employ corresponding insect-foraging techniques, or diverse plant species that have evolved comparable floral shapes with which they attract the same group of pollinators.
Guilds in Nature:
Browsers and terrestrial folivores
Forest canopy folivores
Forest floor scavengers
Forbs ( or “phorb” – an herbaceous flowering plant that is not a graminoid)
Graminoids (grasses, rushes and sedges)
Saprophytes (plant, fungus, or microorganism that lives on decaying organic matter)
Piscivores (carnivorous animal that eats primarily fish)
Because members of a guild engage in similar activities, they are often competitors for the resources they share, especially when those resources are scarce. So, when it comes to safe bedding sites, and sharing resources in a guild, researches wanted to know more about cougars! Between 2012-2016 the researchers investigated nearly 600 cougar bed sites in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. They carefully examined both the landscape and the microsite. These TCP researchers used GPS collars to identify the puma bedding sites, then carefully studied each one.
If we are going to learn why and what they are studying exactly, we need to cover the terms. A “microsite” is a term used in ecology to describe a pocket within an environment with unique features or conditions. Ecologists and scientists classifying different microsites based on temperature, humidity, sunlight, nutrient availability, soil characteristics, substrate, vegetation cover, etc. A microsite is basically a sub environment within an environment.
It’s important to also note that many microsites exist in an environment. This leads to organisms (plants, insects, animals) basing their selection of habit on the features of the microsite itself. Being able to choose the best microsite will positively influence the species’ survival, growth and reproduction. Basically, a good choice of a microsite has a direct relationship to the future generation of that particular species.
Their research discovered that among prey species, bed site selection provides:
mitigates predation risk
may directly influence survival
They discovered that pumas gravitate to hidden bed sites where it would be hard for a competitor to see them. Warmth is also an important factor in bed-site selection, especially during winter. Their studies also shed light on the fact that these felines face more danger in their natural habitats than most of us realize.
1. Landscape Choices
Research concerning the landscape, discovered that in the winter, cougars selected bed sites that were in alignment with the hypotheses of both thermoregulatory AND predator avoidance.
In the winter, cougar “beds” / communal sleeping areas were located:
on steeper slopes, but at lower elevations
closer to the forest edge
on southern, eastern, and western-facing slopes
Research concerning the landscape in the summer, showed that bedding areas were a bit different. They found that cougars chose predator avoidance over thermoregulation.
Summer Bedding was found to be:
closer to forest edges
away from sagebrush and meadow habitat classes
on steeper slopes.
2. Microsite Choices
At the micrositescale, cougar bed characteristic in BOTH the winter and summer supported BOTH of their hypotheses of predator avoidance and thermoregulatory.
Cougars chose bed sites that included:
high canopy cover
high vegetative concealment
in a rugged habitat class (characterized by cliff bands and talus fields)
Note: Talus is steep, loose piles of rock, formed by the constant process of erosion, and ubiquitous to the mountains. Talus deposits typically have a concave upwards form. To mountain climbers, Talus areas are not technical challenging areas to hike, but climbing Talus can be exhausting—and dangerous as well, due to the possibility of landslides consider this an area. Cliff bands consist of steep, narrow passages.
Hikers trekking through a talus field on the Fern Lake Trail in the Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
A kid climbing a cliff band
Puuurfectly Suited for the Terrain
Looking at the two terrains pictured above, most people wonder how and why a mountain lion would choose to navigate those kinds of steep terrains, but these wild cats are designed for this habitat. Pumas have incredible paws! Their feet have a unique bone structure that enables them to grip rocks, logs, and slippery substrates. They are even better at this kind of “hiking” than bears or wolves!
….So a precarious bed site can offer an escape advantage if a competitor tries to sneak up mid-nap. You’ll probably never see a puma sleep in an open field, as they typically bed down where trees or other landscape features provide a quick escape. –-TCP member Anna Kusler
Researchers found that a subordinate predator (pumas) selected bed sites that allowed for both thermoregulatory and anti-predator functions. Brilliant, eh?? These choices are very similar to what we see occurring in many prey species! Remember: Cats of all shapes, sizes, and species can be both predator and prey.
It’s also important to recognize that across their range, pumas overlap with six apex predators, including the gray wolf, grizzly bear, American black bear, jaguar, coyote, and maned wolf. How’s that for competition for resources and the possibility of become prey?!
“Even though most of us probably think of pumas as top predators with little to fear, that’s not always the case. In North America, much larger grizzly and black bears steal their hard-earned kills. Wolves, as pack animals, steal their kills AND kill them and their kittens.” -TCP A.Kusler
The biologists now believe that studying bed site characteristics of subordinate predators could provide a new way to measure the use of refugia (an area where a population of organisms can survive through a period of unfavorable conditions). This would ultimately provide new insights into the habitat requirements and energetics of subordinate carnivores. Their research highlights some nuances of habitat loss that are easy to overlook. When trying to protect large predators like pumas, many people — including researchers — focus on the availability of prey. But this is only part of the puma picture.
“Because the best hunting habitats are not necessarily the safest places to sleep, a puma must find a home range that can provide both types of environment.”
Below is one of the videos they shared with the public, and used in their studies that shed light on where and why pumas chose to bed with other pumas:
We often found puma beds tucked underneath the low-lying boughs of a tree, or against the rugged face of an inaccessible cliff. They seem to prefer steep, rugged terrain, like cliff bands and boulder fields. – A. Kusler
Cats can snooze like no other. A pussycat can pass out while purring, and some even doze off when bird watching out a window! Cats never seem to venture far from a nap. The house cat’s pendulum swings between sleeping and stalking so well, we’ve named a version of napping after them! A cat could be fully aroused one moment, engaging in passionate play or serious stalking, then fall effortlessly back into a catnap. These cat nappers know what they are doing. Feline veterinarians agree that if a cat is awake most of 24 hour period of the day, there could be something wrong. Like their wild ancestors, house cats are programmed for proper sleep; it’s in their DNA. This instinctual need lets the cat that know that when he/she is not chasing, hunting, eating, or grooming, h/she should be sleeping — or at least searching for a place to sleep.
The family of Felidae is made up of solitary predators. Lions are the exception; they cooperatively hunt. But new research has shown that female cougars may benefit from tolerating males during feeding, through the maintenance of social niches that support breeding opportunities. – Who says females don’t have ulterior motives when it comes to survival of their species? 😉 And when it comes to sleeping, not only could all cats in the Felida family compete in sleeping as an Olympic trial, but where they snooze, and with whom they choose to catnap, is quite particular for these felines.
Cat guardians have seen the amusing and strange ways cats sleep. We have noticed how often they sleep, and where they sleep. But why they are choosing these places, spaces, and bedfellows is linked to their ancestors. So is the fact that house cats are crepuscular: They are biologically programmed to be most active/ awake in the twilight hours of dusk and dawn.
Pumas may not have the option of passing out on an enclosed patio, but they do have comparable choices about where they sleep in their native, wild habitats. Pumas, like our house cats, need to find safe sleeping spots. These places must be located where it’s unlikely other predators / potential threats can harm them or disturb them.
“So, like your housecat loves to sleep in the sunny warmth of a windowsill, pumas like to maximize their exposure to the sun’s rays That meant many bed sites were on south-facing slopes, where the warmth from the sun is strongest.” – Anna Kusler
Considering Cats and Cougars
As we wrap this cougar chat up, I’d like for you to consider something about your cat at home. The next time you spot your house cat snoozing in a sack, inside an empty box, on a shelf, or any other safe cozy place, consider how this behavior is inextricably linked to their wild ancestors. Your feline family member has the same innate desire and need to remain silent and hidden, just like the puma napping under the boughs of a tree or the crags of a cliff, perched high above the world. Once we know this, and recognize the importance of this, we can properly provide our house cats with the safe spaces, and cozy places they need … just like their wild feline ancestors.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”― Anaïs Nin
New Year’s Eve will be here in just a few days. The question isn’t “when will it arrive?” The question is, will it arrive at your home with a big bang, or will it arrive with grace and ease? I can tell you honestly that New Year’s Eve will arrive at our house this year without whimpers or bangs.
But this wasn’t always so.
Festivus for Us!
In the past, my home wasn’t calm and peaceful. In fact, it was pretty crazy, especially this time of year. For many years I used to host an annual New Year’s Eve party. Friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers knew that my dojo was The Place To Go if you wanted to have a great night on New Year’s Eve. For hours on end it was a fabulously fun FESTIVUS. People were coming and going all night. There were endless fireworks and food. Music was blasting, voices were booming, and drinks were pouring. I threw one heck of a party.
Now I know better.
Consider every living being in your home.
I can say with all sincerity that as much as I loved hosting for others, I know now that it was a bit selfish of me because I wasn’t thinking of everyone. I had not considered how my housemates might have felt. These roomies were not like most. They didn’t speak my language. I didn’t speak theirs at the time. I did not consider the effects that New Year’s Eve’s shenanigans would have on them.
My roommates were the animals with whom I shared my home.
Despite what we often may think, animals are pretty complex creatures. They speak a different language than we do, they have quirks in their personalities that can make them quite unusual sometimes (like us humans) and they often display anxiety and discomfort in ways we don’t. -No Dog About It
Consider Their Individual Needs.
I can’t say that I ignored my furry, feathered, and scaly roomies’ needs when New Year’s Eve came around. 15 years ago I didn’t know their individual or species-specific needs. I was unaware of what each animal in my home truly needed to feel safe and secure, content and stress-free when the party got started!
Many years ago I was in the old school dogs-and-dominance domain. I knew just enough to get by. I had a heart for fish and herps. And I knew the basics of birds, cats, rats and rabbits.
But knowing the basics and having a heart for them wasn’t enough. -Not if they were to live long, healthy, peaceful, content, and minimally stressed lives. Using old-school, masculine management techniques create more harm than good. And a whole lotta love isn’t enough if we want our animal companions to flourish!
I am who I am today because of the mistakes I made yesterday. ―The Prolific Penman
Know Their Needs.
We all have opinions about pets. But what do we really know to be true? Science and metaphysics are constantly discovering new and fascinating insights about animals.
Let’s look a just a few facts and stats to be aware of concerning our animal companions that will help everyone in your home move into the New Year with grace and ease:
All of this matters. –Especially during the holidays.
Are the holidays stressful for you? Consider how it affects your animal companions. Consider how they feel. Consider their individual needs. I failed to do this in years past, but now that I know better, I do better.
Now we spend New Year’s Eve cuddled and calm. We don’t throw wild parties, and if we do have friends over, we set up our home environment to ensure the animals feel safe.
How will you spend your New Year’s Eve this year? Will you welcome it with calmness and without fear? My wish is that you will. May you find comfort and peace being home with the ones you love, and may you be content beingtogether.
“Whenever you are examining someone else, you are bound to learn many interesting things of which you were not previously aware.” ―Lemony Snicket
Do you have a long list of things to do, but even more reasons not to do them?
I do. We all do.
We have lists of must-do today, gotta-do this week, have-to-do this month, and so on. They’re things we know we should do, but instead we check Facebook, read the newspaper, watch T.V., garden, organize the office or garage, or do something else that is completely unrelated to The List that we are wanting to avoid. When humans do this kind of avoidant behavior we call it ‘procrastinating’, but when other species of animals do it, it’s referred to as displacement behavior.
What Is Displacement Behavior?
Rather than try and explain it myself, here are a few definitions of displacement behavior:
In biology and psychology, it’s something that a person or animal does that has no obvious connection with the situation which they are in and that is the result of being confused about what to do.
Displacement behavior usually occurs when an animal is torn between two conflicting drives, such as fear and aggression. Displacement activities often consist of comfort movements, such as grooming, scratching, drinking, or eating.
Displacement Activity defined:
1. (Psychology) behavior that occurs typically when there is a conflict between motives and that has no relevance to either motive, e.g. head scratching
2. (Zoology) zoology the substitution of a pattern of animal behavior that is different from behavior relevant to the situation, e.g. preening at an apparently inappropriate time
Simply put, it’s a normal behavior that’s displayed out of context.
Displacement behavior is usually seen when an animal has a conflict between two drives: the desire to approach an object, while at the same time being fearful of that object. Displacement behaviors are a way of coping with the present environment.
In social situations, scientists also refer to these kinds of behaviors in humans as displacement behaviors. You might recognize these commonly seen behaviors when you’re out at a bar or restaurant where couples are gathered. Men often scratch at, or touch their face. Women will fiddle with their hair, tug at their purse, or tap their shoe. I call it fiddling and flirting! Scientists have even found that these behaviors represent an important strategy for coping with stressful situations, particularly for men.
Mating and Conflict in Many Species
Humans are not the only species who display a variety of displacement behaviors in a myriad of environments to cope with stress and frustration. There are many examples of displacement activities in the animal kingdom. They are known to occur in a wide range of species from dolphins to dogs. Below is a description of the reactions of two herring gulls contending for nesting territories on a sand dune:
If both the birds are standing near the edges of their territories so that in each the urge to drive off the intruder is matched by the urge to retire into the heart of the territory, they may suddenly leave their confrontation for a few moments and pull with their beaks at grass stems.
Tinbergen found that this was really part of the pattern of nest-building; and it appeared that when the drive to defend the nesting territory was frustrated by an opposing drive, part of the pent-up “energy” splashed over, so to speak, in isolated actions which were part of the sequence normally expressing quite a different drive, that of building the nest.
Another interesting point is that some of these activities, especially those which arise in mating encounters, have become transformed into signals which convey the frame of mind of one individual to another of the same species.
Whether or not this adaptation occurs, the essential characteristics of displacement activity are frustration of one basic drive and the inconsequential performance of fragmentary activities normally part of behavior expressing another.
What the scientist is describing are displacement behaviors. These behaviors are allowing the gulls to avoid conflict. They are a form of clear communication within their species, and the behaviors work for the gulls. Our companion animals are doing this all the time with us, and others at home, but we fail to recognize it.
Fidos, Felines, and Feathered Ones
Gulls are not unlike our pets at home. If we look closely enough we will see similar behavior in our animal companions! For example, a dog may have the desire to bark, bite, or walk away from another dog, but instead she scratches herself (when she’s not actually itchy). During conflict, a cat who’s being harassed may be unsure whether to run from her attacker, or stand her ground and fight. So instead of doing either behavior, the threatened cat displays a third, unrelated behavior; grooming. Self grooming is a normal behavior that cats find calming and reassuring. But in this situation, it’s a displacement behavior!
“Some dogs will interrupt play, or other types of interactions with humans or other dogs, to take a quick ‘inventory’ of their own uro-genital body parts. This is a form of displacement behavior that appears most in stressful situations.” – Handelman, Barbara, Canine Behavior
Other common examples of displacement behavior in cats and dogs:
yawning when not sleepy
grooming out of context
using the scratching post after a stressful encounter
shaking off when not wet
Scent marking with their face
“If an animal (or bird, or fish) is stimulated to express a basic drive but the action is frustrated, the drive may find an outlet by inducing fragments of the pattern of behavior properly belonging to another drive. This is known as displacement activity.” -Thus, Tinbergen
Instead of licking our genitals or racing over to the scratching post, humans find other calming (and much more appropriate) reassuring activities to keep us busy, comfortable, and feeling secure. In fact, I am doing a displacement behavior right now: Instead of facing my Must Do List, I am writing this blog to you.
Displacement behavior is the animal equivalent of nail-biting. It’s a specific behavior that helps to relieve stress, or to deflect conflict, without having to deal with it directly.
How do you know if it’s a displacement behavior?
—-> We need to look at the FULL picture. We need to ask, “What’s happening in the environment at that moment?”
The reason these behaviors are called “displacement” behaviors is because they happen out of context. For example, if you and your dog head into the veterinarian’s office and your allergy-free dog begins scratching herself all of a sudden, then paces in circles while in the lobby with you, and then suddenly she “shakes off” (when she is dry), your dog is displaying displacement behaviors. Then this is your dog’s way of calming her nervous system, lowering her stress, and dealing with the environment she feels is threatening.
Displacement In Action!
The video below shows a number of displacement behaviors in dogs. See how many you recognize. Can you determine what’s causing the dogs to be conflicted/anxious?
The dog wants to do something, but he is suppressing the urge to do it. He displaces the suppressed behavior with something else such as a lick or a yawn. For example, you are getting ready to go out and the dog hopes to go too. He is not sure what will happen next. He wants to jump on you or run out the door, but instead he yawns. The uncertainty of the situation causes conflict for the dog and the displacement behaviors are a manifestation of that conflict. The dog may want to bite a child who takes his bone, but instead he bites furiously at his own foot. – Doggone Safe
Below is a video of an adult cat displaying Displacement Behaviors to reduce the energy and anxiety of a juvenile cat. The Displacement behaviour you will see is grooming, yawning, rolling, and averting gaze.
These behaviors indicate that the animal is feeling conflicted. Inner conflict that’s not positively addressed can lead to more severe anxiety, fears, and prolonged stress. These can in turn affect an animal’s mental and physical well being, which can lead to medical and behavioral issues. And frankly, if you are living or working with an animal, you should be FLUENT in their language.
What should you do?
If your animal companion is doing any of these behaviors around children, dogs, cats, or other pets in the home (or elsewhere), turn the conflict into fun, or at the very least, help the animal to feel calm, relaxed, and safe. Help them walk away from what’s stressing them, or let them know they are safe by removing the perceived threat. If the situation is getting tense with another animal or child, intervene swiftly but positively. Then offer everyone something positive and productive to focus on. Remember to keep it upbeat and easy! We don’t want to add more stress to the situation.
Do you notice displacement behaviors in the animals at your work or home? What is the most common one that you see?I would love to hear from you. Please share below!
I’m in no hurry: the sun and the moon aren’t, either. Nobody goes faster than the legs they have. If where I want to go is far away, I’m not there in an instant. ― The Collected Poems of Alberto Caeiro
Are you a patient person? Do you take your time with things? Do you want more than you need?
I am not very patient some days. I rush into things sometimes, and my natural tendency is to get greedy when it comes to animal training. But I have learned to go slow and to be patient. I have learned to be grateful and satisfied with small successes. I would like to share one of them with you.
Way back in the day when I was at the Audubon Nature Institute, one of my mentors (and my housemate) was the head animal trainer. When I was making progress with an animal at work or at home she used to calmly tell me, “Don’t be a greedy trainer, Amy. Stop when you’re ahead.”
I always grunted when I heard that advice, but I knew she was right. In fact, she was always right when it came to animal training. She was one of those brilliant trainers that always had a solution to a problem. She could create and maintain the most complicated chains of behavior. She was famous for creating long lasting bonds with every animal (and person) she worked with. She always trained and taught without fear or intimidation. And she was the trainer who make the greatest advances with any animal she worked with. I learned so much from her.
Now decades later her advice still rings true when I am working with a client or with our animals at home. – especially cats.
If you wanna get to second base, let them set the pace.
If you have lived or worked with cats you know that they set the pace. If you have not worked with cats before, know this: When you decide to set the pace and push too fast you will fail. You will both end up becoming frustrated and stressed. You might even get injured in the process, too. And then finally, you loose the cat’s trust.
It pays to go slow.
I like to think of going slow with cats as moving from first base to second base, and then eventually onto a home run. I set up our training sessions this way. First base might be the cat letting you hold his paw. Second base might be the cat letting you lift his paw, then touch his paw with nail clippers. Third base would be touching, holding, and then applying gentle pressure with the nail clippers to the actual nail. Home run is a full nail clip.
I’ll explain why I like to move through the bases slowly.
For over a decade I watched numerous veterinarians push my cats well past the point of no return. One cat in particular, Mr. Beaux, would become so stressed at the vet’s office, he had to be netted (yes, caught in a net). Then heavily sedated. They had to do this to even look at him. I watched Beaux break free of leather muzzles, attack people, climb a metal wall (yes, you read that right) and knock heavy computers off counters in the examination room.
We don’t take that route at home, or at the vet’s office anymore. I know better now. Working with any animal should not be a wrestling match.
Now we go slow. We let the animal set the pace. We let the animal say when they are done. And we make progress together while building trust.
I’ll show you how we do this in the short video. But before you watch, I need to explain something: Beaux lost all trust in people. No one could touch his ears, mouth, or feet after all of the many manhandling encounters at various vet’s offices. You couldn’t touch him in any of these areas without him becoming very aggressive.
I had to rebuild his trust. This is how I did it.
After several short, positive sessions like that, Beaux will now let me trim all of his nails while staying relaxed. It’s something I never thought was possible! By going slowly and letting Beaux set the pace I was able to build his trust. By rewarding him for calm behavior with something he finds valuable and rewarding, he learned to enjoy the process and no longer feel threatened. By ending the session when he was done he was more willing to participate the next time.
A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.― Ernest Hemingway
Another one of our feline family members has learned that nail trim time can be a very Good Thing! You can see us in action here: Fear-Free Feline “Pawdicure”
Husbandry with any species shouldn’t be stressful.
Some common habits of grooming cats can get in the way of success:
♦️we ask too much.
♦️we don’t know when the cat is beginning to feel stressed.
♦️we proceed to quickly.
♦️we don’t allow choice.
♦️we haven’t built up trust.
♦️we forget to reinforce.
♦️we aren’t using reinforcers the cat prefers.
♦️we create over arousal.
Tips to Remember when you are first learning how to safely trim your cat’s nails at home:
GO SLOW! It’s very tempting to want to move forward quickly when things are going well, but you will make far more progress by going slow and steady.
Set aside the temptation to get “greedy” and want to do more. Be happy with one tiny step that you make together! This way you can both enjoy the process.
By letting your cat set the pace you are gaining his/her trust.
By going slow, you learn to be respectful of your cat’s body language and what their comfort level is that day. Maybe the next time you can get 2 nails clipped!
It takes time to build trust, especially if you cat has been FORCED to have his/her nails trimmed in the past and it was traumatic for them!
Why rush the process when you can go further in the long run by building trust and creating a stress free, positive experience for both you and your cat?
Training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care.
There are many reasons people choose to train an animal. Some people train animals to avoid being bitten, attacked, or crushed by them. Some people train animals to avoid being their next meal. Some people train animals to make their lives easier when working with them.
Those are a few of the reasons why I started training animals, but over the years I started to appreciate other reasons for training them.
I became dedicated to training animals because we had fun together! I enjoyed training them because it enhanced our relationship. I looked forward to training them because it was fun challenge, where everyone would win! I appreciated training animals because I always learned something new about them. I became humbled when training animals because they always found a way to “train” me in the process. Training became one of my favorite forms of communication. Training became an essential part of my life. Training was an essential part of their life.
Something else I learned while training animals: If someone acquired the skills, understood the techniques, and practiced patience, they could do it, too.
I am not special. I merely took the time to learn the techniques. I practiced the skills. I learned patience. I made mistakes. And I tried again and again.
That’s why I want to talk with you about training. You can train animals the force-free way, too! But before we begin, you have to understand what training really is.
What Is Training?
Training is “teaching”.
When we make a conscious effort to train an animal to display a particular behavior, we are training the animal. However, sometimes we influence (train) our animal’s behavior inadvertently, without being aware that we are teaching them. We do this through our actions, or through other stimuli present in their environment.
That’s why it’s so important that we become aware of that fact that we are always training.
Whether you are consciously aware of it or not, you influence what your animal companion learns. You are their teacher. As their caretaker, you are teaching the animals that you care for 24 hours a day! Now ask yourself, what are you teaching them?
Training is all about associations.
The key to an optimal environment at home (or in captivity) is to assist an animal’s opportunity to make associations that enhance its overall well-being. Simply put, as their guardians (or caretakers), we help animals to feel more secure, safe, and content in their environment by creating scenarios where the animal feels good about who and what they encounter every day. As various training methods are being applied to an increasingly diverse number of species, it is important to understand what methods are appropriate (and which are not appropriate).
Training is about building a relationship.
When we are training an animal using positive methods, we are building trust. Trust is the foundation on which all relationships are built upon. Positive-based training is one of the best ways to enhance the relationship between a person and an animal, and maintain this trust for a lifetime. Training increases trust and builds confidence. It builds bonds that last a lifetime! Training creates a happy, harmonious environment.
Trust is one of the most important aspects of any training plan. What defines a good relationship between trainer and trainee is a strong positive reinforcement history.
Why Training Is Essential
Training is a key component to an animal’s well being. Training is the key to safety, harmony, and well-being in our homes! A home without a well trained, well behaved animal is chaotic and stressful. Most – if not all – animal behavioral issues can be successfully managed with a formal training plan. From trips to the vet, to trips to the park, training is at the heart of having these experiences be a positive one for everyone involved.
Animals deserve the best care we can possibly provide. Training should not be considered a luxury that is only provided if there is time; it is an essential part of good animal care. Just as one would never consider developing an animal care program without a veterinary component, a nutritional component, a social component, and an environmental component; nobody should consider caring for an animal without a behavioral management component integrated into the program. ~ Ken Ramirez
Every year, Ken Ramirez leads a sold-out seminar for students and professionals in the animal training field. Ken was one of my greatest teachers as I was learning about the science of animal training. Watch Ken’s interview, as he explains why training is essential, how we are training animals every day- whether we realize it or not, and how the laws of learning work on all species, including people!
We are limited in what we can accomplish because of preconceived notions of what is possible. When we limit ourselves or our pets, we also limit our view of what is possible. Of course, there are limits to what we can train. But sometimes we don’t give our dogs credit for being capable of far more than what we see them do traditionally.
Why Training Your Pet Improves Their Life, and Yours!
In the video below, Ken Ramirez share tips on how to train your own furry friend using the same world-class training and care that endangered species receive in captivity! He also explains why clickers and “targeting” are helpful when training pets. Ken demonstrates these techniques with a shelter dog that was once trained for dog fighting. See how force-free, science-based training has transformed this Fighting Fido into a Canine Companion:
My message would be simple: Training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care. Everyone who has a pet should understand that basic fact. Training is a way to enhance the quality of life for our pets. It is far more than just teaching a dog to do a cute trick. Training is about teaching a dog (or any animal) how to live in our world safely. ~Ken Ramirez
Animal training should be about mutual respect. The goal is to build a relationship based on trust. When we build trust while respecting the animal’s individual needs and preferences, we enhance the bond between the animal and the human. The results improve our life, and the life of our animal companion. ~ Conscious Companion
Coming Up Next: How Animals Learn – It’s Not an Opinion; It’s Science!
Animal enrichment promotes naturalistic behaviors that stimulate the mind and increases physical activity. It reduces stress and therefore promotes overall health by increasing an animal’s perception of control over their environment and by occupying their time.
While working for a decade as an Enrichment Coordinator for various animal sections at the Audubon Zoo, I learned that physical and mental stimulation is vital to every species on the plant. Squid, poison dart frogs, mice, tortoises, spiders, jaguars, sheep, dogs, parrots, ferrets, anteaters, cats, and pigs all need daily mental and physical stimulation! Think of any animal, and I assure you that it needs daily stimulation.
Life is very stale and very boring without enrichment. Imagine sitting on the couch in your home. There are no windows. You cannot leave the house. No one ever visits you. You have no radio, T.V. iPhone, or internet. You have to eat and drink the same thing every day. What do you think would eventually happen to your mind and body after a day, then a week, then a month? This kind of mental stagnation is incredibly harmful to all living creatures. In fact, it’s downright deadly.
All animals need enrichment, which is a fairly simple but important concept. Enrichment improves or enhances the environment for an individual animal and stimulates the animal to investigate and interact with their surroundings more. At the Audubon Zoo, I would enrich an animal’s environment by making changes to structures in their enclosures, present novel objects and scents for them to investigate, change how we presented food to them, and much more.
We encouraged them to forage, hunt, and handle their food in ways that are natural to them in the wild. (The Shape of Enrichment has a great sample article of this kind of enrichment.) These tools were used on a regular basis at our zoo to alleviate boredom. Boredom often leads to frustration, and other unwanted behaviors. Giving animals more choices prevents boredom!
Coordinating Enrichment for Exotics
As an Enrichment Coordinator, it was my job to ensure that every animal in a particular section had species-appropriate enrichment provided for them every day. This could be anything from planting geographically appropriate plant species to encourage a critically endangered female Blue Iguana to forage on her native country’s plants to prepare her body for breeding season, to providing a Boomer Ball for our Miniature Donkey in the Children’s Zoo to keep her from becoming bored and harassing the goats, sheep, or visitors!
The video below is an excellent example of how we could use a Boomer Ball in a captive zoo environment. This demonstrates the fun and importance of mental and physical enrichment, with a focus on Choice, Change, and Complexity.
Otters Playing with Boomer Balls at the Philadelphia Zoo
Behavioral enrichment should be random, interesting and novel. The goals of enrichment are to offer a sense of control by allowing animals to make choices and to stimulate species-appropriate behaviors
What Captive Otters Can Teach Us About Our Pets
Right about now you might be asking, “So what does an otter playing with a ball, underwater, at a zoo, have to do with my pet at home?” Well, that otter is a perfect example of what I encourage all of my clients to do with their pets, in their homes, every day: mentally and physically challenge them! Every one of you has the ability to have this much fun with your pets at home! I am going to explain how you can do this, why enrichment is so important for your pets, and how it improves your life as well.
How Enrichment Helps
Environmental enrichment, when used properly, can positively address many behavioral issues. This can be anything from “rowdiness,” cognitive dysfunction, storm and noise phobias, separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and behaviors that result from the all too common problem in homes: boredom and/or frustration.
In addition to treating behavioral disorders, environmental enrichment should be viewed as an essential part of providing an excellent quality of life for all pets due to its proven positive effect on the health and well-being of animal companions.
What is Enrichment?
Enrichment can be defined as:
A process for improving or enhancing animal environments and care within the context of their inhabitants’ behavioral biology and natural history. It is a dynamic process in which changes to structures and husbandry practices are made with the goal of increasing behavioral choices available to animals and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors and abilities, thus enhancing animal welfare . (Association of Zoos and Aquariums [AZA] Behavior Scientific Advisory Group 1999, excerpted from Disney’s Animal Programs).
Behavioral enrichment is defined as “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.”
Simply put, enrichment is “the act or process of increasing the intellectual or spiritual resources”.
More simply put: Add a little creativity, fun, and stimulation to an animal’s life!
Environmental enrichment for pets (also called behavioral enrichment) is a means to enhance a companion animal’s surroundings. It serves to enhance their life through means in which the animal is presented with novelty in his/her environment. The animal is given opportunities to learn. And the animal is encouraged to engage in natural, instinctive, species-specific behaviors.
Why Enrichment Is Important
Enrichment is as integral to animal care as veterinary and nutrition programs.
Studies have shown that when animals are given an enriched, stimulating environment (a variety of things to do, smell, and explore) they live longer, are better adjusted, more relaxed, better able to develop problem-solving skills, and they remember what they learn. This directly relates to your pets at home! Bored animals are easily frustrated, and frustration can lead to destruction. You can avoid boredom and destruction by enriching your pets! Enrichment is one of the keys to enhancing your pet’s life. It is also one of the easiest tools to implement on a daily basis.
Enrichment at Home Serves To:
Curb boredom and restlessness of an animal
Reduce frustration and destructive behaviors
Increase an animal’s natural behaviors, and as result, increase their health and longevity
Teach you new ways to engage and play with your animal companion
Types of Enrichment
Enrichment is generally grouped into the following categories. All of these can be used at home with your pets:
The Key to Successful (and appropriate!) Enrichment
As I mentioned earlier, enrichment is something that can, and should be, incorporated into your animal companion’s life every day. The image above is a great example of how easy it is to do! However, the key to successful (and appropriate) enrichment for an individual animal is doing a bit of research. Your homework is to understand your pet’s natural history. This means that you need to learn about the history of their species, or background and history of their breed.
For example, did you know?
The Italian Greyhound was bred to hunt rabbits.
The Dachshund was used to hunt badgers.
The main reason cats were bred and kept around homes was originally for hunting vermin.
The Bengal cat breed originally came from crossing domestic cats with wild Asian leopard cats.
Although cats are carnivores, they still have an occasional craving for live green plants.
All of this matters!
The breeding history and the natural history of animals affects our pet’s today – even if only on a small level at times. Your domestic house cat still has a strong predatory instinct, so she needs to hunt every day. Your cockatoo may live in a metal enclosure in your house, but he/she still has the innate need to chew, fly, and forage. Your couch potato dog might have a lineage that was bred to swim and retrieve. We must provide opportunities for animals to do things that are in their DNA. We can provide simulated hunting, chewing, foraging, and seeking in our homes. This is what enrichment provides. It’s important that we take the time to put the pieces of their breed /species puzzle together.
What would my _____ be doing if they were living in the wild??
What does this breed of cat do really well, naturally?
What does this breed of dog do on his/her own that might be a peek into their genes?
What was this breed of dog, cat, horse, etc. originally bred for?
What behaviors does this species do naturally in the wild?
What kinds of food are found in their country of origin?
Exploring the breed- and species-specific background for each animal in your home is where we should begin thinking about how to provide appropriate enrichment for them.
The video below is an example of how hedgehogs naturally behave in the wild when they have the opportunity to make their own choices. Why does this matter? Well, if a hedgehog owner knows how hedgehogs naturally behave, then they can then provide this kind of stimulating environment for their hedgehog in the home! The same concept is true for your dog, cat, parrot, or turtle! When we learn about how our animals would behave naturally in the wild, we then have the tools to help them thrive and live long, healthy, happy lives with us in our homes!
Behavioral enrichment should be random, interesting and novel. The goals of enrichment are to offer a sense of control by allowing animals to make choices and to stimulate species-appropriate behaviors
How You Can Provide Enrichment at Home!
Most people have limited resources available to enrich the lives of their animal companions, which results in a huge lack of appropriate enrichment with most household pets, especially exotic animals. Making a few changes to their daily routines can greatly enhance the life and longevity of your animal companion! They key is to make things simple and safe, but challenging for the animal.
You don’t have to be rich to enrich your pet’s life!
One thing I learned very quickly while working at the zoo was that funds were limited. If you wanted to do a lot of enrichment, you had to get creative and do it yourself. This now carries over into our home, and also when I am working with a family that has a very limited budget. I teach my clients that anyone can make enrichment toys out of almost anything, and in the process you get to recycle in a super fun way!
Every night we give our dog Hocus Pocus (and the cats) some sort of enrichment challenge to do. Below is a video demonstrating a very easy one for her, but the point is to not just “give a dog a bone”. Make them work for it! Dogs are natural foragers, so allow your dog to utilize his/her natural instincts! Be as creative as you want to be! This kind of enrichment provides mental and physical stimulation, and in the process they learn that being alone is a Very Good Thing. Bonus: it gives you time to do whatever you need to get done while they are having fun!
Here’s another suggestion: The old school (“traditional”) method of feeding animals out of a bowl does little to stimulate complex feeding behaviors. Enrichment keeps animals active and interested, while encouraging natural behaviors! The video below is a great example of providing simple mental and physical enrichment for a very smart and energetic dog.
Below are a few more examples of simple, easy enrichment that we use in our home on a daily basis. Each of these are examples of natural behaviors that the animal would do in the wild if they were given choices. Click the links to see each short video:
Results from a study showed that when dogs solved a problem and earned a reward they wagged their tails more. These dogs were also more likely to try to solve the problem again, rather than if they were just given a reward. The study also found that food was a preferred reward, compared to spending time with another dog, or being petting by a familiar human.
Now let that really sink in for a moment …. What does that tell you?
In the video below, Chopin, the Moluccan cockatoo, is being challenged mentally and physically to utilize his natural foraging and problem solving skills to retrieve a high-value nut from a puzzle feeder. We used this kind of enrichment for Chopin to reduce aggression, frustration, and boredom.
I encourage everyone to learn what their animal enjoys doing. Discover their natural behaviors. Learn the history of the breed, and the natural history of the species. Once you understand these things, you can challenge the animal to move out of their stale comfort zone and step into the space of Who The Animal Really Is. Enrichment allows us to bring out the inner “House Panther” in a lazy cat. Enrichment transforms destructive dogs into mentally healthy canine companions. It changes frustrated parrots into relaxed, feathered friends.
Daily enrichment doesn’t have to be complicated and time-consuming, but the more creative you get, the more fun your animals will have! Make it a FUN challenge for you and them!
TIP: Be there with them as they discover their new toy. Encourage them every time they make a small success! Don’t just leave them alone with the new toy or puzzle feeder. You wouldn’t offer a puzzle to a child, then leave him/her alone in a room to “figure it out.” You would guide the child, and encourage the child when they make progress! The same is true for our animal companions. Encourage them. Praise them when they make small progress, and even when they are just trying to figure it out!
What kind of enrichment do you provide for your animals? Please share in the comments below!
Look beneath the surface; let not the several quality of a thing nor its worth escape thee. ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Pain is a very common medical issue that can create or exacerbate behavior problems in our animal companions. We must be aware of this. Labeling behavior as “acting out” or “misbehaving” is not going to help matters, especially if there is an underlying medical issue.
Anxiety, aggression, fear, and depression can stem from pain. Growling, hissing, swatting, biting, hiding, and urinating or defecating in unusual places are just a few of the behaviors that you might see when your pet in pain or discomfort. Sometimes these symptoms can be easily overlooked, particularly in cats. Often arthritis is blamed on “old age” rather than very real pain. A cat who is urinating inappropriately in the home may have a painful lower urinary tract disease, rather than a “behavior problem.”
Pain can be very difficult to recognize in many species. Animals have evolved to disguise pain to help them survive. Cats are a great example of this. They are one of the few companion animal species that is both prey and predator.
All species of prey animals instinctively hide their pain so they don’t appear weak, and become an easy target. Domestic house cats may not have any “natural predators” indoors, but they have retained that instinct. If you live in a multi-species household, you can bet that if one animal is in pain or discomfort, they will do their best to hide it from the others. Don’t assume that an animal will rest and stay comfortably still if they are in pain. Many of them will push through the pain and discomfort. Some will even play when they are in pain.
That’s where your job as their guardian comes in! When you learn to become aware of your pet’s daily routines and their subtle behaviors, you will know when something is wrong with them, even when they don’t “show” you. Many animal behaviors go unnoticed until they become annoying, inconvenient, or even dangerous.
Watch them. Learn their routines. Know their behaviors as well as you know yours, your kid’s, or your partner’s behavior and routines. You will be able to better prevent behavioral issues before they arise. This is how we can become a Conscious Companion!
Here are some helpful ways to learn if an animal is in pain or discomfort:
decreased interaction with other pets and family members,
altered facial expression
elevations in heart rate
higher body temperature and blood pressure
Something else to consider is how your pet reacts to being touched – if he/she has increased body tension, or if she flinches in response to a gentle touch, that’s a sign that you need to seek help.
If you see any of these symptoms or behaviors, you should call your veterinarian right away.
Have you ever noticed a subtle change in an animal’s behavior and then later discovered that it was caused by pain or discomfort?