Pet Talk
Columns, Pet Talk

Pet Talk

By Maneka Gandhi

In this week’s Pet Talk, Maneka explains the reasons behind cats sitting somewhere completely out of reach.

My cat is always sitting somewhere completely out of reach for me. Why?

In order to survive in the wild, animals are constantly learning how to adapt to their environment. When animals are domesticated, many of these survival traits persist.

One thing many cat owners have noticed is that their felines often seem to gravitate toward higher perches.

Why do so many felines like to survey their world from on high? To answer this question, it’s important to understand that cats are both predator and prey. They are predators to smaller prey, such as rabbits, rodents and birds, to name a few. However, they are also themselves prey to larger predators, such as owls and eagles from the air and dogs on the ground. Staying in a high location provides a cat with a better vantage point to spot prey and predator alike. If a cat goes up into a tree’s branches, she can evade larger carnivores that cannot climb trees. Cats can also sleep in higher places with decreased risk of getting hunted or surprised. Cats that hide in trees are also taking advantage of leaves and branches that provide the perfect camouflage to protect the cat from flying predators.

Adult cats also use their climbing ability to avoid potentially confrontational interactions with other members of their own species. Mother cats may also do this to avoid their kittens, especially during weaning time. It may depend on how busy, or quiet, your household is. Your cat most likely wants to keep an eye on her environment and increase the likelihood that she will not be disturbed. Some cats, for example, have learned to stay on top of the refrigerator because it is an area of low traffic but high visibility and it can be warm. Even when she is no longer scared, your cat may learn to associate that high place — the refrigerator, the top of the book case, the staircase top — with safety, peace and comfort.

Why do dogs tilt/cock their heads to one side at times?

Your dog hears something — a mysterious sound, a smartphone ring, a certain tone of voice — and suddenly her head tilts to one side, as if she is figuring out what it is. The head tilt might actually signify your dog’s attempt to make sense of what she hears. Some experts believe that dogs tilt their heads when they think there is a possibility that what is being said could lead to something important to the dog. So your dog may cock her head when you start talking about taking her for a walk or giving her a bath or playing a game of fetch — whatever it is that she loves to do.

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Dogs have movable ear-flaps that help them locate the source of a sound. In addition to moving their ears, dogs’ brains compute extremely small time differences between the sound reaching each ear. Even the slightest change in the dog’s head position, relative to the sound, supplies information the dog’s brain uses to figure out the distance of the sound. So, when a dog cocks her head, she could be trying to more accurately determine the exact location of a sound, specifically the height, relative to the ears.

Put these elements together and it seems pretty likely that dogs naturally engage in this behaviour and then repeat it when reinforced. If the dog is praised by the owner for cocking her head, she will be more likely to cock her head in the future. While it’s easy to assume something as cute as your dog tilting her head at you is always benign, it is important to speak with your veterinarian about any behaviour that could have a medical cause, including a head tilt. A dog that consistently, or even intermittently, holds its head to the side, especially without an obvious external trigger present, may have a medical problem. These types of health issues range from brain disease, inflammation, cancer, etc., to an ear problem such as infection, lodged foreign object or some other mass.

My dog is given two full proper meals and small tit-bits in between, yet he is always hungry. Why so?

In most cases, the behaviour is considered absolutely normal. Dogs have been carrying on about getting food from humans for millennia. In fact, one leading theory, about how dogs first became domesticated, claims that it was directly tied to getting at those leftovers.

It should come as no surprise to most owners that canines can be expert manipulators of human behaviour. There are plenty of dogs who know exactly what it takes to wheedle that bit of carrot from you.

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Other canine behaviourists link big dog appetites to biology, suggesting that dogs are simply listening to their gut, just like their wild cousins. Food is a limited resource, so when you can get to it you shouldn’t stop eating, because you never know if it will be your last meal for days.

Another theory states that some dogs are simply remembering what it feels like to truly starve. After all, plenty of dogs come in from the cold as rescued pets, after significant periods of malnutrition and chronic lack of food.

There are some dogs who legitimately suffer from endocrine and gastrointestinal ailments, that can lead to outsized appetites. Diabetes, Cushing’s Disease, hyperthyroidism (rare in dogs) and some pancreatic disorders are all potentially responsible for a desire to eat.

Why does my dog lick his wounds?

If you lacked opposable thumbs, and didn’t have access to cleansers and disinfectants, you’d probably lick yourself clean after an injury, too. That’s what canine tongues and saliva are designed to do.

I’ve read that canine and feline saliva (ours too!) also contain compounds that aid in healing. Is that true?

This is what spit has:

  1. The enzymes lysozyme and peroxidase help destroy the cell walls of gram-positive bacteria.
  2. Lactoferrin, defensins and cystatins have antibacterial qualities.

iii. Thrombospondin is considered antiviral.

  1. A protease inhibitor in saliva has been shown to promote wound healing.
  2. Nitrate compounds break down into nitric oxide upon contact with the skin, thus inhibiting bacterial growth.
  3. Growth factors, such as epidermal growth factor, can promote healing.

vii.  Opiorphin is a pain reliever.

Of course, licking isn’t always a good thing. Pets can get obsessed with licking, and create wounds. Dog saliva has enzymes that kill off bacteria, and when a dog licks himself, it helps to get rid of dead tissue, and cleans dirt from wounds. Some dogs, however, just can’t stop themselves and may actually reopen wounds, or cause other kinds of harm through excessive licking. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether licking is getting out of control or just a normal canine drive, so here’s a simple rule of thumb: If there’s any evidence of a wound, hair loss or even thinning of the fur, continual licking of the area is considered excessive.



June 21, 2017

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