Ethology and veterinary practice: Emotional contagion
Monday, September 11, 2017
The quality and intensity of the human-animal bond plays a much more significant role in the analysis and resolution of companion animal problem behaviors than it does in studies of wild animals in their natural environments.
In wild animal ethology, much effort goes into minimizing the effects of human presence because humans aren't part of the animals' normal environment. Consequently, anything but the most minimal human presence could compromise the quality of any data collected. As advances in technology permit more remote data collection, the quality of wild animal behavioral studies has improved proportionally.
On the other hand, because humans normally are part of the companion animal environment, studies of companion animal behavior that occur in strictly controlled laboratory settings with little to no human interaction may result in findings of minimal relevancy to those people and animals living outside those settings.
Two phenomena — emotional contagion and social learning — that occur in wild and domestic animals play potent roles in companion animal behavior. And both influence the quality of the bonds that form between people and their pets. Although emotional contagion and social learning are inextricably entwined, this month I want to focus on emotional contagion.
Studies of multiple species indicate that offspring nursed by more anxious mothers are more anxious themselves. Animal studies also indicate that any genetic changes triggered by the quality of the maternal care the young receive may persist for several generations.
In wild animals, this form of parent-offspring emotional contagion — and the physiological and behavioral changes that go with it — serves as an energy-efficient way to ensure the offspring's success in the parental environment. However, if dramatic changes occur in that environment, e.g., sudden habitat destruction secondary to a natural or human-orchestrated event, then this form of neonatal parent-offspring communication and its long-term effects on the offspring's behavior could be detrimental.
Another example of maternal-offspring emotional contagion backfiring may be familiar to those practicing in areas with growing populations of transported rescue dogs. Instead of the adopted strays of local pet dog roots I used to see in my practice, I now see transport dogs from the southern United States and Puerto Rico, plus South Korea, Nepal, Tanzania, Ecuador and the Bahamas, among others.
A significant number these dogs display behaviors common to those animals of long-established free-roaming roots who survive by scavenging, preying on small game or a combination of both. They also span the sociability spectrum from social to semi-social to solitary. The studies of maternal-offspring emotional contagion suggest that the mothers of these dogs would communicate a different emotional message to their young than that communicated by a family pet raising her litter in her owner's comfortable home.
By the same token, though, we can't overlook that the emotions communicated by a street dog to her young in her harsh-but-stable dump or woodland environment might be calmer and more confident than those communicated by a bitch from that same environment who endured the trauma of capture and then gave birth in an alien rescue environment.
Because adult domesticated animals retain certain juvenile traits (a state referred to as "neoteny"), it also seems reasonable to assume that they would be prone to view humans more parentally.
For centuries, successful farmers and herdsmen aware of this have perceived themselves as caretakers of their animals. Those who succeeded in this capacity almost certainly recognized the reality of inter-animal and human-animal emotional contagion for practical reasons.
Events that panic an entire herd or flock, or even just key animals perceived as leaders among the group, could endanger the entire group's well-being. It also could endanger the well-being of any humans working among them.
People whose lives and livelihood depended on these animals' success no doubt also recognized that remaining calm themselves played a vital role in calming their fearful animals. Later, veterinarians, farriers and others who routinely worked with groups of same-species animals similarly appreciated this highly practical aspect of the bond.
Unlike those whose lives and livelihood depend on recognizing the bilateral potential for animal-animal and human-animal emotional contagion to occur to ensure the well-being of all, emotional contagion involving companion animals may be reduced to a hybrid unilateral process. This more often occurs when knowledge of ethology is lacking to provide species- and individual animal-specific meaning to the animal's behaviors.
Barring its presence, the animals function more like blank slates onto which humans can project whatever emotions they wish. A common example of this are those people who attribute their dog or cat's fear-driven territorial marking with urine or stool to the animal's spiteful or evil nature — or in one memorable case, "a deliberate attempt to drive me mad!"
A societal trend that has enhanced this effect is the mistaken belief that it's the animal's job to safeguard the person's emotional well-being. Thus, instead of owners communicating their willingness to care for and protect their animals, these people communicate a message of emotional instability or vulnerability that they expect the animal to dissipate.
If the animal possesses the wherewithal to accept the responsibilities associated with this human-animal role-reversal, then the impact of this on the animal's emotional, behavioral and physical health will be minimal.
However, some people who perceive dogs in this manner consciously or subconsciously may gravitate toward animals they perceive as equally or even more vulnerable than they are. In this situation, they may directly or indirectly reinforce the animal's fears. That, in turn, may have negative effects on the animal's behavior and health.
For example, some more fearful dogs who assume the responsibility for protecting their fearful owners may opt for high-energy, fear-based aggression as the safest approach to fulfill this obligation. The cost to the fearful dog of losing possession of the person is too high to risk anything less.
The reality of human-animal emotional contagion also adds yet another dimension to the philosophy of feeding treats to anxious animals during the veterinary process. By doing so without making a conscious attempt to alleviate any client fears regarding the veterinary experience that might contribute to the animal's anxiety, clinicians and their staffs inadvertently may reward the animal's problem emotion instead of eliminating it.
If the goal is to allow clinicians to do what they want to do to the in a timely manner, this approach does achieve that purpose. But if the treats can't be phased out without exacerbating the animal's fear, it's not working for that animal. Then it becomes a question of how the animal's fear plays out in other settings and how this affects the animal's behavior there.
The potential for human-domestic animal contagion is one of the hallmarks of the human-animal bond. Ideally, it results in enhanced bilateral interspecies communication that fulfills animal as well as human needs. At its worse, the animal, the person and sometimes both will suffer.
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