1. Not-so-guilty pleasure: Viewing cat videos boosts energy, positive emotions

    July 6, 2015 by Ashley

    From the Indiana University media release:

    tablet computerIf you get a warm, fuzzy feeling after watching cute cat videos online, the effect may be more profound than you think.

    The Internet phenomenon of watching cat videos, from Lil Bub to Grumpy Cat, does more than simply entertain; it boosts viewers’ energy and positive emotions and decreases negative feelings, according to a new study by an Indiana University Media School researcher.

    The study, by assistant professor Jessica Gall Myrick, surveyed almost 7,000 people about their viewing of cat videos and how it affects theirmoods. It was published in the latest issue of Computers in Human Behavior. Lil Bub’s owner, Mike Bridavsky, who lives in Bloomington, helped distribute the survey via social media.

    “Some people may think watching online cat videos isn’t a serious enough topic for academic research, but the fact is that it’s one of the most popular uses of the Internet today,” Myrick said. “If we want to better understand the effects the Internet may have on us as individuals and on society, then researchers can’t ignore Internet cats anymore.

    We all have watched a cat video online, but there is really little empirical work done on why so many of us do this, or what effects it might have on us,” added Myrick, who owns a pug but no cats. “As a media researcher and online cat video viewer, I felt compelled to gather some data about this pop culture phenomenon.”

    Internet data show there were more than 2 million cat videos posted on YouTube in 2014, with almost 26 billion views. Cat videos had more views per video than any other category of YouTube content.

    In Myrick’s study, the most popular sites for viewing cat videos were Facebook, YouTube, Buzzfeed and I Can Has Cheezburger.

    Among the possible effects Myrick hoped to explore: Does viewing cat videos online have the same kind of positive impact as pet therapy? And do some viewers actually feel worse after watching cat videos because they feel guilty for putting off tasks they need to tackle?

    Of the participants in the study, about 36 percent described themselves as a “cat person,” while about 60 percent said they liked both cats and dogs.

    Participants in Myrick’s study reported:

    • They were more energetic and felt more positive after watching cat-related online media than before.
    • They had fewer negative emotions, such as anxiety, annoyance, and sadness, after watching cat-related online media than before.
    • They often view Internet cats at work or during studying.
    • The pleasure they got from watching cat videos outweighed any guilt they felt about procrastinating.
    • Cat owners and people with certain personality traits, such as agreeableness and shyness, were more likely to watch cat videos.
    • About 25 percent of the cat videos they watched were ones they sought out; the rest were ones they happened upon.
    • They were familiar with many so-called “celebrity cats,” such as Nala Cat and Henri, Le Chat Noir.

    Overall, the response to watching cat videos was largely positive.

    “Even if they are watching cat videos on YouTube to procrastinate or while they should be working, the emotional pay-off may actually help people take on tough tasks afterward,” Myrick said.

    The results also suggest that future work could explore how online cat videos might be used as a form of low-cost pet therapy, she said.

    For each participant who took the survey, Myrick donated 10 cents to Lil Bub’s foundation, raising almost $700. The foundation, Lil Bub’s Big Fund for the ASPCA, has raised more than $100,000 for needy animals.


  2. Horsing around — with actual horses — reduces stress hormones in youth

    April 25, 2014 by Ashley

    From the Washington State University media release:

    teens friends punkNew research from Washington State University reveals how youth who work with horses experience a substantial reduction in stress — and the evidence lies in kids’ saliva.

    The results are published in the American Psychological Association’s Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin this month.

    “We were coming at this from a prevention perspective,” said Patricia Pendry, a developmental psychologist at WSU who studies how stress “gets under the skin” and the effects of prevention programs on human development. “We are especially interested in optimizing healthy stress hormone production in young adolescents, because we know from other research that healthy stress hormone patterns may protect against the development of physical and mental health problems.

    NIH grant to apply hard science

    Her work is the first evidence-based research within the field of human-equine interaction to measure a change in participants’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”The beauty of studying stress hormones is that they can be sampled quite noninvasively and conveniently by sampling saliva in naturalistic settings as individuals go about their regular day,” Pendry said.

    Three years ago, the National Institutes of Health began asking researchers to tackle big questions about the effects of human-animal interaction on child development. With the support of a $100,000 NIH grant, Pendry led a research project to engage students in grades 5-8 in a 12-week equine facilitated learning program in Pullman, Wash.

    She approached the coordinator of PATH (Palouse Area Therapeutic Horsemanship) at the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, which had been offering a therapeutic riding program for over 30 years. Pendry has been riding and working with horses since she was a child and reacquainted herself with therapeutic horsemanship when she began to look for her next research project at WSU.

    Higher hormone levels pose potential risk

    She said stress hormone functioning is a result of how we perceive stress as well as how we cope with it. Stress is not just what you experience, she said, but it’s how you interpret the size of the stressor. A child in front of a large, unfamiliar horse may experience more stress than when he or she encounters a smaller, more familiar animal.Working with PATH director Sue Jacobson and Phyllis Erdman from the WSU College of Education, Pendry designed and implemented an after-school program serving 130 typically developing children over a two-year period that bused students from school to the barn for 12 weeks.

    Children were randomly assigned to participate in the program or be waitlisted. Based on natural horsemanship techniques, the program provided 90 minutes weekly to learn about horse behavior, care, grooming, handling, riding and interaction.

    Participants provided six samples of saliva over a two-day period both before and after the 12-week program. Pendry compared the levels and patterns of stress hormone functioning by measuring cortisol. The results were exciting, she said.

    “We found that children who had participated in the 12-week program had significantly lower stress hormone levels throughout the day and in the afternoon, compared to children in the waitlisted group,” she said. “We get excited about that because we know that higher base levels of cortisol — particularly in the afternoon — are considered a potential risk factor for the development of psychopathology.”

    Evidence to support human-animal work

    Pendry said the experimental design underlying the study gives more scientific credit to the claims of therapeutic horsemanship professionals, parents and children who have reported a positive impact from these types of programs. In addition, she hopes the results will lead to development of alternative after-school programs.While the research focused on prevention, Pendry said she believes it could provide a starting point to look at the impact on children of high levels of stress and physical or mental health issues.

    “Partly because of NIH’s effort to bring hard science to the field of human-animal interaction, program implementers now have scientific evidence to support what they are doing,” she said.

    Learn more about the Department of Human Development in the WSU College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resources sciences at http://hd.wsu.edu.


  3. Dogs mood offers insight into the health of their owners

    October 7, 2013 by Ashley

    From the Newcastle University media release:

    seniors with dogMonitoring a dog’s behaviour could be used as an early warning sign that an older owner is struggling to cope or their health is deteriorating.

    Experts at Newcastle University, UK, are using movement sensors to track normal dog behaviour while the animals are both home alone and out-and-about. Providing a unique insight into the secret life of man’s best friend, the sensors show not only when the dog is on the move, but also how much he is barking, sitting, digging and other key canine behaviours.

    By mapping the normal behaviour of a healthy, happy dog, Dr Cas Ladha, PhD student Nils Hammerla and undergraduate Emma Hughes were able to set a benchmark against which the animals could be remotely monitored. This allowed for any changes in behaviour which might be an indication of illness or boredom to be quickly spotted.

    Presenting their findings at the 2013 UbiComp conference in Zurich, project lead Ladha, says the next step is to use the dog’s health and behaviour as an early warning system that an elderly owner may be struggling to cope.

    “A lot of our research is focussed on developing intelligent systems that can help older people to live independently for longer,” explains Ladha, who is based in Newcastle University’s Culture Lab.

    “But developing a system that reassures family and carers that an older relative is well without intruding on that individual’s privacy is difficult. This is just the first step but the idea behind this research is that it would allow us to discretely support people without the need for cameras.”

    Behaviour imaging expert Nils Hammerla adds: “Humans and dogs have lived together in close proximity for thousands of years, which has led to strong emotional and social mutual bonds.

    “A dog’s physical and emotional dependence on their owner means that their wellbeing is likely reflect that of their owner and any changes such as the dog being walked less often, perhaps not being fed regularly, or simply demonstrating ‘unhappy’ behaviour could be an early indicator for families that an older relative needs help.”

    How the technology works

    In the UK, around 30% of households own at least one pet dog, totalling an estimated 10.5 million animals.

    Designed to provide an indicator of animal welfare in an age when dogs are increasingly left alone for long periods of time, the team created a hi-tech, waterproof dog collar complete with accelerometer and collected data for a wide range of dog breeds.

    “In order to set the benchmark we needed to determine which movements correlated to particular behaviours, so in the initial studies, as well as the collars, we also set up cameras to record their behaviour,” explains Ladha.

    Analysing the two datasets, the Newcastle team were able to classify 17 distinct dog activities such as barking, chewing, drinking, laying, shivering and sniffing.

    The team also assessed the system against different breeds.

    “This had to work for all dogs,” explains Ladha, “so health.”

    Hammerla adds: “This is the first system of its kind which allows us to remotely monitor a dog’s behaviour in its natural setting.

    “But beyond this, it also presents us with a real opportunity to use man’s best friend as a discreet health barometer. It’s already well known that pets are good for our health and this new technology means dogs are supporting their older owners to live independently in even more ways than they already do.”


  4. Why won’t she leave him? Abused women often fear for pets left behind

    September 25, 2013 by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois media release:

    abused woman domestic violenceVeterinarians and women’s shelters can make it easier for abused women to decide to leave their homes, particularly when the abuser is using a beloved pet as part of a campaign to control his partner, reports a new University of Illinois study.

    He made me stand there and . . . watch [him kill my cat]. And he was like: That could happen to you, one woman in the study said.

    These incidences are very symbolic of what the abuser is capable of doing. He’s sending the message: I can do something just as severe to hurt you,” said Jennifer Hardesty, a U of I associate professor of human development and family studies.

    For the study, Hardesty interviewed 19 abused women about their decisions on what to do with their pets when they were seeking help from a shelter.

    A recent study found that 34 percent of women had delayed leaving out of concern for their pets because their abuser had threatened and harmed the animals in the past, Hardesty noted.

    “For abused women, a pet can be a treasured source of unconditional love and comfort—maybe even protection—in a time of transition. Many are strongly bonded to their animals,” she said.

    Hardesty stressed that not all abused women are strongly bonded to their pets, and not all abusers target pets as part of their campaign to control their partner.

    She does recommend that shelter personnel ask women if they have pets in their home, if they need help placing the pets somewhere, and if something should be done to protect the animals.

    At present, only a few shelters welcome pets. In response, the U of I College of Veterinary Medicine is pioneering a program that provides a safe haven for pets until women in shelters can find housing and reclaim their animals.

    “It would be ideal if the pet was able to stay with the woman at the shelter, but you’d need a reasonably well socialized and non-aggressive animal for that, and it would require a major shift in facilities and training for shelter personnel,” said Marcella Ridgway, a clinical associate professor in the U of I College of Veterinary Medicine.

    According to Ridgway, the U of I program provides up to 30 days of care for pets of women staying at two local shelters. Although many people have a stereotypical idea about pets that have been exposed to violence, the veterinarians typically encounter animals with subtle indicators of a problem, such as having fallen behind on vaccinations or heartworm checks.

    “Student volunteers care for the pets and arrange visits between the women and their pets. These students may have some knowledge of interpersonal violence, and they see this as a way to help. Some are able to see the animal come in and then witness the reunion at the end so it’s quite fulfilling for them,” said Cheryl Weber, student services coordinator and grief educator at the college.

    Hardesty advised that domestic violence shelter staff:

    • Inform women seeking shelter about safe haven programs and other emergency resources for pets, preferably before they arrive at the shelter
    • Provide opportunities for women to discuss their pets
    • Incorporate pets into active safety planning efforts
    • Educate and train staff about sensitive approaches that acknowledge that women have different bonds to their pets
    • Collaborate with community partners to develop safe haven programs or other safe options for pets

    Ridgway recommended that veterinary professionals:

    • Help spread the word about safe haven programs and emergency resources for pets
    • Become educated and promote awareness about the links between domestic violence and pet abuse
    • Be knowledgeable and nonjudgmental with clients who disclose domestic violence
    • Address pet health care issues in an honest and thorough but nonjudgmental manner, using a triaged approach to avoid overwhelming clients
    • Assist clients in consideration of rational choices for long-term planning for pets
    • Collaborate with community partners to develop safe haven programs or other safe options for pets
    • Contribute to broader professional discussions about effective veterinary approaches to domestic violence, including routine screening

    “Programs like this one empower abused women. When a woman who has been victimized makes a decision to protect a beloved pet, she’s not a victim, and that’s important,” Hardesty said.


  5. Study suggests interacting with dogs can help improve mood

    June 18, 2013 by Ashley

    From the Washington State University press release via EurekAlert!:

    DogLindsay Ellsworth is prescribing a new, mood-boosting therapy for teenagers in drug and alcohol treatment: shelter dogs.

    On Friday afternoons, about four dogs from the Spokane Humane Society take a field trip to Excelsior Youth Center as a group of teenage boys eagerly await their arrival. Ellsworth, a doctoral candidate in animal sciences at Washington State University, organizes the meet-ups where participants can help brush, feed and play with the dogs.

    “We found one of the most robust effects of interacting with the dogs was increased joviality,” she said. “Some of the words the boys used to describe their moods after working with the dogs were ‘excited,’ ‘energetic’ ‘and happy.’

    The relationship between dogs and humans is prehistoric, but Ellsworth’s study is the first of its kind to demonstrate how dog-interaction activities improve mood among teenagers living in residential treatment centers.

    A method to the gladness

    Once a week, during the daily recreation time at Excelsior, Ellsworth breaks about eight participants into two groups. One group plays pool, video games or basketball provided in the treatment center. The other group interacts with the shelter dogs for about an hour.

    Before the activity, participants identify 60 mood descriptors on a scale of one to five on what is known as the PANAS-X, a self-reporting method organizational psychologists use to scale and study emotion. After the activity, the participants fill out the same scale.

    Those who spent time with the dogs not only showed an increase in joviality, but also positive affect (in psychology, the experience of feeling or emotion), attentiveness and serenity. Meanwhile, overall sadness decreased, Ellsworth said. Many participants are also being treated for ADHD, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

    “I was surprised, during the trial period, how calm the boys were around the dogs and at how outbursts and hyperactivity diminished,” she said. “It was something you could observe like night and day.”

    When Ellsworth asked the boys what they like most about working with the dogs, some of their written responses included, “giving dogs treats and showing a lot of love to the dogs” and “I like to have time with the dogs because (it) lets me get my mind off things” and “I loved playing with Junior.”

    Robert Faltermeyer, executive director of the youth center, and the staff are hopeful this kind of science-based program could be established as part of treatment centers’ structured activities.

    “It’s an opportunity for kids in a real chaotic life, making unhealthy choices, to focus in on a specific task with an animal,” he said. “It empowers them to make positive changes even on the simplest scale of correcting the animal’s behavior.

    “I think those exposures build some internal capacity for them to say, ‘Hey, I think I’m capable of changing my life,'” he said.

    A chemical response to companionship

    The National Institute on Drug Abuse is actively looking for science-based behavioral interventions to help those struggling with drug abuse, and the accompanying lack of affect, respond more fully to the stimulus of day-to-day activities, Ellsworth said.

    She hypothesizes that dopamine, a natural feel-good chemical human brains produce, is released in the boys’ brains as they anticipate the dog interaction. Social companionship with the dogs may also stimulate opioid release.

    Using natural stimuli like dogs, she said, could help restore the normal function of these critical chemical messengers after the brain’s chemistry has been altered through drug use. Animal behaviorist Ruth Newberry, Ellsworth’s doctoral advisor at WSU, agrees on the potential for treatment.

    It could be a really novel, cost-effective and beneficial complement to traditional treatments. This could be a win-win innovation for everyone involved,” Newberry said, “including the dogs.”

    Ellsworth hasn’t been able to scientifically track the impact on the dogs, since so many are adopted over the course of the trials. However, she said research has shown dogs in a limited social environment, like a shelter, are more responsive to humans.

    Any sort of activity that provides an opportunity for shelter dogs to socialize with humans and other dogs outside of the kennel environment is great, and that is the value that the shelter sees in these dog-interaction activities, too.” Ellsworth said.

    According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, more than 5 million animals enter shelters annually in the U.S. With more than 5,000 independent shelters nationwide, Ellsworth believes these types of behavioral therapy programs could be widely implemented.

    Ellsworth’s interest in the dog and human connection emerged through her work with the University of Washington Conservation Canine Program, the Smithsonian Zoo and adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

    The WSU alcohol and drug abuse research program helped fund the dog-teen interaction study.

    Starting this summer, Ellsworth is increasing the number of visits to Excelsior to twice a week. In this phase of her research, she’s also interested in understanding how dogs can influence teenagers’ engagement in group therapy and cooperation in structured activities. She hypothesizes that the more compliant and engaged teenagers are with structured programs, the more likely they are to reap the benefits of treatment.

     


  6. Study examines how the common “cat parasite” gets into the brain

    December 10, 2012 by Sue

    From the Karolinska Institutet press release:

    CatToxoplasma is a common ‘cat parasite’, and has previously been in the spotlight owing to its observed effect on risk-taking and other human behaviours. To some extent, it has also been associated with mental illness. A study led by researchers from Karolinska Institutet now demonstrates for the first time how the parasite enters the brain to influence its host.

    “We believe that this knowledge may be important for the further understanding of complex interactions in some major public health issues, that modern science still hasnt been able to explain fully”, says Antonio Barragan, researcher at the Center for Infectious Medicine at Karolinska Institutet and the Swedish Institute for Communicable Disease Control. “At the same time, it’s important to emphasize that humans have lived with this parasite for many millennia, so today’s carriers of Toxoplasma need not be particularly worried.

    The current study, which is published in the scientific journal PLoS Pathogens, was led by Dr Barragan and conducted together with researchers at Uppsala University

    Toxoplasmosis is caused by the extremely common Toxoplasma gondii parasite. Between 30 and 50 per cent of the global population is thought to be infected, and an estimated twenty per cent or so of people in Sweden. The infection is also found in animals, especially domestic cats. People contract the parasite mostly by eating the poorly cooked flesh of infected animals or through contact with cat faeces.

    The infection causes mild flu-like symptoms in adults and otherwise healthy people before entering a chronic and dormant phase, which has previously been regarded as symptom-free. It is, however, known that toxoplasmosis in the brain can be fatal in people with depleted immune defence and in fetuses, which can be infected through the mother. Because of this risk, pregnant women are recommended to avoid contact with cat litter trays.

    A number of studies have been presented in recent years showing that the toxoplasmosis parasite affects its host even during the dormant phase. It has, for example, already been observed that rats become unafraid of cats and even attracted by their scent, which makes them easy prey. This has been interpreted as the parasite assuring its survival and propagation, since the consumed rat then infects the cat, which through its faces can infect the food that other rats might then proceed to eat.

    A number of studies also confirm that mental diseases like schizophrenia, depression and anxiety syndrome are more common in people with toxoplasmosis, while others suggest that toxoplasmosis can influence how extroverted, aggressive or risk-inclined an individual’s behaviour is.

    “We’ve not looked at behavioural changes in people infected with toxoplasma, as that’s been dealt with by previous studies,” says Dr Barragan. “Instead, we’ve shown for the first time how the parasite behaves in the body of its host, by which I mean how it enters the brain and manipulates the host by taking over one of the brain’s neurotransmitters.”

    In one laboratory experiment, human dendritic cells were infected with toxoplasma. After infection, the cells, which are a key component of the immune defence, started secreting the signal substance GABA. In another experiment on live mice, the team was able to trace the movement of infected dendritic cells in the body after introducing the parasite into the brain, from where it spread and continued to affect the GABA system.

    GABA is a signal substance that, amongst other effects, inhibits the sensation of fear and anxiety. Disturbances of the GABA system are seen in people with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar diseases, anxiety syndrome and other mental diseases.

    “For toxoplasma to make cells in the immune defence secrete GABA was as surprising as it was unexpected, and is very clever of the parasite,” says Dr Barragan. “It would now be worth studying the links that exist between toxoplasmosis, the GABA systems and major public health threats.”

    The study was financed with a grant from the Swedish Research Council.


  7. Study suggests dogs and humans use different information when learning names for objects

    November 26, 2012 by Sue

    From the Public Library of Science press release via EurekAlert!:

    Child and DogDogs learning to associate words with objects form these associations in different ways than humans do, according to research published November 21 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Emile van der Zee and colleagues from the University of Lincoln, UK.

    Previous studies have shown that humans between the ages of two to three typically learn to associate words with the shapes of objects, rather than their size or texture. For example, toddlers who learn what a ‘ball’ is and are then presented other objects with similar shapes, sizes or textures will identify a similarly-shaped object as ‘ball’, rather than one of the same size or texture.

    Earlier research with dogs has shown that they can learn to associate words with categories of objects (such as ‘toy’), but whether their learning process was the same as that of humans was unknown.

    In this new study, the scientists presented Gable, a five year old Border Collie, with similar choices to see if this ‘shape bias’ exists in dogs. They found that after a brief training period, Gable learned to associate the name of an object with its size, identifying other objects of similar size by the same name. After a longer period of exposure to both a name and an object, the dog learned to associate a word to other objects of similar textures, but not to objects of similar shape.

    According to the authors, these results suggest that dogs (or at least Gable) process and associate words with objects in qualitatively different ways than humans do. They add that this may be due to differences in how evolutionary history has shaped human and dog senses of perceiving shape, texture or size.

    The bottom line: Though your dog understands the command “Fetch the ball”, but he may think of the object in a very different way than you do when he hears it. As the authors explain, “Where shape matters for us, size or texture matters more for your dog. This study shows for the first time that there is a qualitative difference in word comprehension in the dog compared to word comprehension in humans.”

    Citation: van der Zee E, Zulch H, Mills D (2012) Word Generalization by a Dog (Canis familiaris): Is Shape Important? PLoS ONE 7(11): e49382. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0049382


  8. Study looks at how cats’ colour affects people’s perceptions of their personalities

    October 28, 2012 by Sue

    From the UC Berkeley press release via ScienceDaily:

    Just like humans, domestic cats are often judged by their color, and the media and folklore help perpetuate these stereotypes. Take the snobbish, aloof, white kitty who promotes Fancy Feast cat food, and spooky images of black cats, which can be associated with bad luck and witches, especially around Halloween.

    Interested in the link between how cat color influences adoption rates, a University of California, Berkeley, researcher surveyed 189 people with experience of cats as pets and found that they were more likely to assign positive personality traits to orange cats and less favorable ones to white and tortoiseshell ones. Orange cats were largely regarded as friendly, white cats as aloof and tortoiseshell cats as intolerant.

    The results, published this week in the online issue of Anthrozoos, the official journal of the International Society for Anthrozoology, are noteworthy because feline typecasting can have a negative impact on adoption rates at animal shelters, the study suggests.

    “To date there is little evidence that these perceived differences between differently colored cats actually exist, but there are serious repercussions for cats if people believe that some cat colors are friendlier than others,” said Mikel Delgado, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley.

    “We hope that this study will be a starting point for further research in what qualities affect adoption and retention of pet cats, and whether there is a genetic or physical basis (such as coat color) for personality differences in cats,” she added.

    Of an estimated 100 million domesticated cats in the United States, at least one million end up in shelters each year. Many are abandoned because their personalities conflict with their owners’ expectations. A 2002 study from UC Davis found that one in four cats are brought to shelters because they did not get along with their owners or other household pets. A common complaint was that they’re “too active.” That study also found that dark cats are more likely to be euthanized, and that tortoiseshell cats are frequently typecast as having too much attitude or “tortitude.”

    “Previous research supports the existence of ‘black cat syndrome,’ where black and brown cats are less likely to be adopted than cats of other colors,” Delgado said. “We were interested in whether people’s perceptions of the interaction between personality and coat color might play a part.”

    To establish a link between how cat color influences adoption rates, Delgado and her co-authors used Craigslist to recruit a national sample of cat owners and cat lovers in large U.S. metropolitan areas. Participants were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 7, the personalities of black, white, bi-colored, tri-colored (tortoiseshell or calico) and orange cats based on their tendencies to be active, aloof, bold, calm, friendly, intolerant, shy, stubborn, tolerant and trainable.

    While most people surveyed said personality informs their decision about which cat to adopt, the characteristics they ascribed to cats based on their coat color indicated that color consciously or unconsciously played a key role in their final choice of which kitty to take home.

    Overall, orange cats and bi-colored cats were characterized as friendly, while black cats, white cats and tri-colored cats were regarded as more antisocial. White cats were considered to be more shy, lazy and calm, while tortoiseshell cats were more likely to be depicted as both more intolerant and more trainable. Black cats were typified as having less extreme character traits, which might contribute to their mysterious reputation.

    At the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society (BEBHS), cat coordinator Cathy Marden is all too familiar with the psychology involved in pet adoptions. Staff members and volunteers there try to break down stereotypes at every opportunity, she said, and descriptions of each cat written on the adoption rooms cages highlight the individual’s characteristics.

    “You can’t judge a cat by its color,” she said. “If someone comes in to adopt, we encourage them to spend time with all the cats, because it’s the personality of that cat — not the color — that will let you know if the animal’s the right fit for you.”

    Still, reactions to black cats can be so strong, she said, that few adoptions take place at the shelter when there are more than a few black cats in the adoption room. “It’s a huge bummer,” said Marden, who has blogged on the BEBHS website about the “Top 10 Reasons to Adopt a Black Cat” and about the joys of adopting a monochromatic cat.

    Domestic cats are believed to be descended from African wild cats and have coexisted peacefully with humans for 4,000 years. Through literature, movies and other cultural channels, cats have long been characterized as solitary, independent species who are “tolerant of affection only when it suits their needs,” according to the study. That said, cats have adapted well to a variety of living conditions, and this has made them successful at cohabiting with humans, the study points out.

    Other coauthors of the study are Jacqueline Munera at the New College of Florida and Gretchen Reevy at the California State University, East Bay.


  9. Study suggests dogs, like humans, show a gradual development of susceptibility to contagious yawning

    by Sue

    From the Springer Science+Business Media press release via ScienceDaily:

    Do you get tired when others yawn? Does your dog get tired when you yawn? New research from Lund University in Sweden establishes that dogs catch yawns from humans. But not if the dogs are too young. The study, published in Springer’s journal Animal Cognition, found that, like humans, dogs show a developmental trend in susceptibility to contagious yawning. While dogs above seven months of age catch human yawns, younger dogs are immune to yawn contagion.

    Contagious yawning is not just a sign of sleepiness or boredom. Previous research has shown contagious yawning in humans, adult chimpanzees, baboons and dogs, and suggests that it can be used as a measure of empathy. Empathy, mimicking the emotional responses of others, is difficult to measure directly, but contagious yawning allows assessment of a behavioral empathetic response, the researchers say.

    While the development of contagious yawning in human children has seen much research, this is the first study to investigate its development in another species.

    Elainie Alenkær Madsen, PhD, and Tomas Persson, PhD, researchers at Lund University, engaged 35 dogs in Denmark, aged between four and 14 months, in bouts of play and cuddling and observed the dogs’ responses when a human repeatedly yawned or gaped or performed neither of the two expressions. Only dogs above seven months of age showed evidence of contagious yawning.

    This pattern of development is consistent with that in humans, who also show a developmental increase in susceptibility to yawn contagion, with children typically beginning to yawn contagiously at the age of four, when a number of cognitive abilities, such as accurate identification of others’ emotions, begin to clearly manifest. One interpretation that Madsen and Persson suggest is that the results reflect a general developmental pattern, shared by humans and other animals, in terms of affective empathy and the ability to identify others’ emotions. Given that contagious yawning may be an empathetic response, the results suggest that empathy and the mimicry that may underlie it develop slowly over the first year of a dog’s life.

    There was some evidence that the researchers may have transferred the emotion that yawning reflects (sleepiness) to the dogs, as nearly half of the dogs responded to yawning with a reduction in arousal, to the extent that the experimenter needed to prevent a number of dogs from falling asleep.

    Research with adult humans and other primates suggest that individuals are more likely to yawn contagiously to those with whom they have close emotional bonds. Madsen and Persson tested the dogs with both an unfamiliar experimenter and their owner, but found no evidence that the puppies preferentially yawned in response to the yawns of the human with whom they were emotionally close. Since this is also the case for young human children, the researchers suggest that in species that show an empathy-based social modulatory effect on contagious yawning, this behavior only emerges at later stages of development.


  10. Study suggests relationship with working dogs may protect handlers from PTSD

    October 11, 2012 by Sue

    From the UPenn press release via HealthCanal:

    working dogAnyone who has had a pet instinctively knows what several physical and mental health studies have shown: people who have a companion animal have lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression than the general population. But with love comes the possibility of loss; when pets fall ill, are hurt or die, their owners bear the psychological burden of increased risk of depression and other ailments.

    Melissa Hunt, the associate director of the clinical training program in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has long been interested in this dynamic as it relates to people and their pets. But a chance encounter propelled her to study it in an extreme case: search-and-rescue dogs and their handlers.

    Search-and-rescue dogs are not just pets; they’re partners,” Hunt said, meaning this dynamic is even stronger — and the stakes even higher — for people who work with animals.

    Emergency responders, such as those who work on canine search-and-rescue teams, often experience difficult deployments where the stress-reducing benefits of an animal could be particularly helpful. But, like their human partners, working animals are also at risk, and this could amplify the negative psychological impact handlers face.

    James Serpell

    When it comes to working dogs and their owners, does the increased benefit outweigh the increased risk? Answering this question began by being in the right place at the right time.

    Hunt was presenting her work on the psychological impact of the loss of a pet at Penn’s Ryan Veterinary Hospital, hoping to share some practical advice with veterinarians who must often break the bad news to pet owners.

    The time was October 2001, and in the audience was Cindy Otto, an associate professor in critical care at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Otto had recently returned from Ground Zero, where she provided medical support for canine search-and-rescue teams combing the rubble of the World Trade Center. With concerns fresh in the public’s mind about the long-term health effects the dust and debris might impose, she was setting up a study that would track the physical health of the working dogs deployed on 9/11.

    Hunt and Otto quickly formed a collaboration that would extend the scope of the study to include the psychological well being of the dogs’ handlers. Working with Hunt’s graduate student Jennifer Alvarez and James Serpell, director of PennVet’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, the team gathered this data via self-reported questionnaires and telephone interviews at yearly intervals.

    About a hundred handlers and dogs completed the three-year study, out of the approximately 200 teams contacted. Of the full participants, about a third were a control group of search-and-rescue teams that were not deployed on 9/11. Their responses ultimately served to underscore the uniquely traumatic impact of the attacks, as deployed handlers, compared to control handlers who did not deploy on 9/11, showed acute elevations in symptoms of PTSD and depression.

    But the results also showed that the benefit conferred by the human-animal partnership is real and significant.

    “For these search-and-rescue workers,” Hunt said, “we saw rates of severe psychopathology and post-traumatic stress disorder that are well below what has been reported in other first responder groups, especially a number of years out from the attacks.”

    The results of the study, published in the journal Anthrozoös, coincides with the opening of the Penn Working Dog Center, which cut the ribbon on its first physical space on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Founded in 2007 and directed by Otto, the Working Dog Center aims to train dogs and to advance research.

    Despite their overarching resilience even after potentially traumatic deployments, working dogs and their human handlers are still at risk as a function of the work they do,” Hunt said.

    “The Penn Vet Working Dog Center, which was inspired by those dogs that responded to the 9/11 attacks,” Otto said, “is focused on the health and performance of working dogs, which clearly includes that important relationship with the handler.”