Creature Thoughts, February 2015

Human, Know Thy Pet



The main reason for adopting a pet, of course, is that we simply love animals. Whether they are dogs, cats, birds, horses, or a variety of little cage-critters, love is our primary motivation for sharing our lives with them.

I find it somewhat startling, though, how little many people know about the animals they have brought into their lives. Startling shifts swiftly toward alarming, when it dawns on me that not only do these people not know anything about their pets … a percentage have no intention to learn.

How many times have vets, behaviorists and trainers heard the line, “He just bit without warning!” about a dog or cat? The experts know (or they darned well should!) that the animal was probably sending out warnings aplenty, possibly for quite a long period of time. The problem was not that the pet wasn’t talking … it was that the human didn’t know how to speak the language.

Loving one’s pets is great, but it’s never enough. Caring for our animal friends is a huge responsibility, and one we cannot carry out properly unless we are willing to educate ourselves as to the needs, the behavior, the health and the inner nature of those species with whom we share our lives.

Knowing what a dog who is fearful looks and acts like could easily prevent so many of the bites that occur in pet-owning homes. Knowing when a cat is saying “back out of my space” would save us a fortune in doctor visits and band-aids — not to mention save the lives of so many pets turned in to shelters for “aggression”. Being able to read the horse who is fearful and thinking about protecting itself with a kick, or knowing that a rabbit who feels threatened will growl, would come in real handy for the owner who doesn’t want to get himself injured.

When we bring pets into our lives, it’s our responsibility to learn not only about their behavior, but their care. You may have seen a viral video of a rabbit on its back in a sink while the owners fill the sink with warm water. It certainly looks like bunny is laid back and relaxed. Every time I see that video, I want to scream. Bunny is not relaxed … he has lapsed into a state of helpless terror, and gone limp. This is an instinctive posture that many prey animals adopt when they are in the jaws of a predator. Their survival instinct tells them to play dead on the off chance that the predator will drop them and they can make a mad dash for it. Bunny isn’t trusting his humans and allowing them to bathe him. Bunny is terrified and quite certain, on his deepest prey-animal level, that those people are about to kill him. (Not to mention that submerging a rabbit in water is never a good idea — sometimes spot-baths are necessary, but soaking a bunny like that can lead to all kinds of health problems.)

One of the great joys we receive when we adopt a pet is the incredible privilege of learning all about another species. By educating ourselves as to their needs and behavior, we learn to see the world, just a little bit, though eyes that are not restricted to a human point of view. It is both our job, and our blessing, to learn as much as we can about the animals who share our world.

Open hearts are made so much sweeter when we open our minds along with them.

To Help Your Learning Adventure: Feel free to browse through the book shop linked to for a selection of many of my favorite books on animal care, behavior and training.