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.

Creature Thoughts, January 2015

Out With The Old


We’ve all done it many times (some of us more than others). We watch the clock tick down the hours, minutes, seconds on the night of December 31st. The ball drops, we count backward from ten to zero, and then the bells ring, the confetti flies, the horns blow, and Auld Lang Syne begins to play. We pull the old calendar off the wall, hang up a new one, and everything changes.

No, not really. Most of the time the only thing that visibly changes on New Year’s Day is the picture on the calendar. In our very human minds, however, with our very human concept of time, a New Year means new beginnings. It’s our annual do-over, our chance to start again. We make resolutions with the firm determination that this year we will do things differently. We’ll lose weight. Well stay in closer touch with family. We’ll stand firm in front of the boss for that promotion we surely deserve. We’ll get out there three days a week and jog. And we do it. We really, really do just what we say we’re going to do.

It usually lasts about a week, because, well, you know — we’re human.

Our pets, bless them, aren’t. What do our animals think of this whole “Happy New Year” thing? Not much, to be honest. It’s not one of those holidays where new toys and treats are distributed, after all. They sense the excitement and, sometimes, trepidation of their human family members, and might wonder briefly what all the fuss is about. New Year’s Day, however, is pretty much like any other day in the cold of winter (or heat of summer if you’re in the southern hemisphere) to them. They wake up, they have a nice pee, eat a lovely breakfast, play for a little while, and many of them finish that up just in time for their mid-morning nap.

Every day is a “Happy New Day” when you’re a dog, cat, bunny, bird or horse with a loving home and devoted human slave force, after all.

An animal’s concept of time is not based on calendars and clocks, nor on days of the week or whether February has 28 or 29. To an animal, time is about energy, rhythms and cycles. They’re aware of the strength of the moon and how high the sun is in the sky. They know when their tummies say it’s time to eat, or when their inner sense of connection tells them Mommy’s on her way home from work.

Helping my animal pals to understand our concept of time can be an interesting challenge. With a little work, for example, they can relate to “how many day/night cycles” before their family arrives home from vacation, though it’s best to start counting when there aren’t that many days left to count. I know one family of kitties whose mom often goes away at Christmas time. One of the three, in particular, is quite talented at keeping track of numbers from four down. He became even more adept at this after he himself had to have a leg amputated a number of years ago. Suddenly, the difference between “four days” and “three days” was very clear to him, and he will always compare days to whether or not they have reached his own number of feet.

Many animals also seem to fairly-well grasp how long a car trip will take, if they have something familiar to compare it to. “It takes a little longer than going to Grandma’s house” is something many dogs and cats can understand, while telling them “about three hours” will not mean anything to them at all.

But New Year’s Day? Changing the calendar from one whole year to the next is a big deal to the human animal. To our pets, however, it’s just another day to wake up, to wag, purr, whuff and nicker hello to their humans. It’s another day to love and be loved.

To animals who are loved by caring humans, every day is a Happy New Day.

And In With the New: A great New Year’s Resolution would be to bring more “Happy New Days” to animals who don’t yet have their own special human. Support your local shelter, rescue group, or animal sanctuary. I know many of you already do this in some way, of course, and for that, my heartfelt thanks.

Happy New Year!

Gayle Nastasi, animal consultant and author