Ethology and veterinary practice: Comprehensive behavioral analysis
Monday, November 06, 2017
In his latest book, "Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst," neuroendocrinologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky does something those of us dealing with animals with problem behaviors and their people do every day. To use a concept many of us learned in driver's education, he gives readers the big picture.
For as obvious as this sounds, this may not be an easy concept to master following years of science-based education and seminars that take a bucket approach. "Bucket approach" is Sapolsky's term for the tendency of academics and other experts to specialize in one small area of a subject, or even just a small part of that small area.
This approach has its value in the laboratory. However, it may create the impression that behaviors in human and nonhuman animals involve specific areas of the brain, specific genes, specific neurotransmitters, hormones, etc., that always function in the same specific ways in all animals.
Admittedly, such statistically significant results can and do occur in controlled laboratory settings. But you don't need to live or work with animals with behavioral problems for long to realize that, as much as such uniform results would be convenient, this just isn't so.
Statistical findings may be reliable on average. However, there's always lots of variability. This explains why context always plays such a key role in the diagnosis of behavioral problem.
Let's look an example that unfolded in my area as well as many others.
When I first moved to my then-rural area, conventional wisdom maintained that only intact male cats sprayed, and neutering them would stop the behavior. This belief didn't arise because cat owners as well as veterinarians were clueless back then. At that time, this was a valid assumption because, when relieved of their testicles, these cats did stop spraying. And, as a beneficial side effect, most of them stopped fighting, too.
However, since that time what used to be the rule became an iffier proposition. Sometimes, a tough male feline street fighter would turn into a cuddly pussy cat who always displayed proper elimination etiquette. But over time, an increasing population of male and female feline house pets and free-roamers challenged the notion that solely linked testicles to marking and fighting. What changed?
What changed — and relatively dramatically I might add — was the context.
Heading the list was habitat destruction. Originally, the bulk of the sprayers were free-roaming, territorial, solitary and predatory males. Once their mothers weaned them, the only time they interacted with other cats was during the breeding season.
During this time, they would fight — sometimes viciously — with other males seeking to mate with females. Once the breeding season ended, they disappeared into the countryside and the security of their own territories.
But when farm and woodlands with their dependable rodent populations gave way to residential houses, that changed. As the human population grew, so did the number and variety of amenities needed to support that growing population.
Gas station/convenience store complexes, restaurants, strip malls, multiplex theaters, chains and big box stores replaced the small mom-and-pop businesses. These required more land and more roads and services.
Meanwhile, the habitat destruction that accompanied the building boom also had unintended consequences for the wildlife and remaining free-roaming feline population.
As their own habitats shrank, some species and individuals adapted to human ones. Some species, including those in the free-roaming intact cat population, signaled their claim on those human territories using scent and scratch marks. But because they reverted to nocturnal behavior, human residents rarely, if ever, saw them.
Simultaneously, people became more detached from the natural environment. With that came a view of animals and their behaviors based more on human perception and needs than any solid knowledge of the animals' ethology.
A good example of these changing human values was the newcomer who insisted on putting out food that attracted these tough old toms from long lines of free-roaming opportunistic survivors. She was shocked when one of these cats attacked and killed her Persian when she put the dedicated house cat outside to meet his new "brother."
Cultural changes also contributed to the increased amount of marking in male and female cats.
In a seemingly unrelated but significant event, more women joined the workforce out of desire or necessity. Being of a more social heritage, dogs used to Mom (mostly, but sometimes someone else) being home all day found themselves alone with little or no preparation for this event. This resulted in increased marking and other canine behaviors that people found distressing.
But instead of adding another dog to the household, these people rehomed the dog and decided to get a cat instead because, "Everyone knows that all cats came pretrained by their mothers to use the litter box." Admittedly, using the litter box has nothing to do with survival outdoors, but this too became part of the changing conventional wisdom.
Simultaneously, the veterinary and shelter community embarked on a period of what veterinary ethicist Bernard Rollin referred to as "gonad harvesting." People with male cats especially embraced this because, as anyone who works with these animals knows, tom cat pee stinks.
Somewhere during this period, the awareness of the feline solitary, predatory, nocturnal, sexual and territorial heritage was replaced by the belief that being confined to a human household was every free-roaming cat's dream. And because the average cat was smaller than the average house-soiling dog, why not get two of them instead of just one? In such a way, a population of naturally more solitary cats was repackaged as social like dogs.
For a while, this new paradigm of the gonad-free strict housecat as feline nirvana seemed to work. But as the indoor and outdoor cat populations both kept growing as the latter's natural habitat shrank, the indoor and outdoor cats increasingly became aware of each other's presence.
And neither of them liked it.
Thus, indoor cats began marking, not for sexual reasons but for territorial ones. Whereas the marking of outdoor animals waxed and waned with the breeding seasons and habitat destruction, marking in response to fluctuating wild and free-roaming animal populations, plus improperly cleaned-up urine and the presence or addition of indoor cats, dogs, people and whatever else could upset feline territorial stability became a year-round event.
These are just some of the influences that fueled the increase in feline elimination problems.
From this we can see that the identity and effect of any variables that may influence where a cat marks or eliminates may differ considerably from area to area and even case to case. Consequently, and as with all behaviors, it isn't enough to memorize a list of Problem A = Cause B = Treatment C. Without knowing the context in which any behavior occurs, what it means is just a guess.
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