Pet talk
Columns, Pet Talk

Pet talk

April 4, 2018

By Maneka Gandhi

In this week’s Pet Talk, Maneka explains how oysters make pearls and about self-awareness in animals.

Are animals self-aware?

Self-awareness is the ability to recognise oneself as a separate entity from other individuals as well as the environment. Several studies have been done on animals to see if they are aware of their existence. The most widely used test is the “mirror self-recognition test”, developed by psychologist, Gordon Gallup Jr. in 1970. In this test, a visual marking is placed on the animal’s body with a scentless dye which can only be seen by the animal in its reflection in the mirror.

Animals which have passed the mirror test are chimpanzees, orang-utans, dolphins, elephants, pigeons. I have worked with chicks and they can recognise themselves too. I believe that all animals see themselves as individuals. How else would you explain individual fear, grief, jealousy and joy — and all the other complex emotions that animals feel. The mirror test is the most simplistic of all.

How do oysters make pearls?

Oysters make pearls as a defensive response to foreign objects that slip inside the shell. When an irritant, such as a grain of sand or a parasite, slips inside the shell and the mantle (protective covering that protects the oyster’s organs), the oyster tries to shield itself from this irritant by producing layers of nacre, a mineral which also lines the inside of the shell. This scab, like the covering your body produces on the wound when you hurt your knee for instance, carries on building and coating the irritant until a pearl is formed.

Farmers culture pearls artificially by purposely inserting irritants that initiate pearl formation.

Why do squirrels chase each other?

Squirrels may chase each other for various reasons, based on their age and gender.

Young squirrels chase each other as a playful activity usually around their mother and this helps them develop skills and coordination.

Adult squirrels chase each other to establish territory. They will chase out and nip other intruding squirrels that might feed in their territory.


When the chase is in late winter or early spring, it is the mating ritual.

Can snakes smell?

Most snakes have an excellent sense of smell to make up for their limited hearing and vision. Only a small part of the sniffing is done through the nostrils . Most is done through their mouth, using the tongue-flicking action. The tongue of a snake is forked and when the snake flicks its tongue, each fork is essentially picking up odour particles from the air. The snake then retracts its tongue back in the mouth where it fits into a special organ known as  the Jacobson’s organ. Here the smell is swiftly processed and analysed so that the snake can act on it. When the snake moves, it constantly keeps flicking the tongue to find any prey or predators in its way.

Are elephants really afraid of mice?

A popular theory is that they are afraid of mice (this makes you feel good, specially if you see yourself as David versus Goliath). According to this theory, elephants are afraid of mice crawling into their trunks, and causing a blockage that makes it difficult to breathe. However caretakers of elephants have regularly observed mice in and around elephant’s feed, climbing and crawling up their trunks. Elephants ignore them. Experts say that elephants could easily blow out mice from their trunks.

Why do cats stretch so much?

Cats sleep for 12-16 hours a day. When a cat is sleeping, or is relaxed, its blood pressure drops. After waking up, cats stretch to get their muscles moving and blood pressure back to its normal levels after a long stretch of inactivity. Increased blood flow to the brain gets the cat to properly wake up and become more alert. The cat is in a vulnerable position when it is stretching. If the cat stretches when it sees you, it means that the cat is relaxed and trusts you.

Why does your cat close his eyes when you talk to him?


Many people believe that when a cat blinks slowly, while they are talking to him, it is because he is sleepy or bored. While this may be true in some cases, slow blinking is also a way of a cat communicating his happiness or trust around you. Cats generally avoid a direct eye contact. In the cat’s world, eye contact is maintained when there is a threat or a fight for dominance. So when a cat is blinking slowly at you, he is letting his guard down and telling you that he trusts you and is happy in your presence and is like a “kitty-kiss”.

How can I make my dog stop eating my cat’s food?

Dogs are not picky eaters, and eat whatever comes in their way. An occasional small snack of cat’s food won’t harm your dog, but too much cat food could give dog diarrhoea and make him sick, as dogs and cats have different nutritional needs. It could also make your dog overweight while the cat goes hungry.

Following these tips can help your dog stay away from the cat’s meal:

  • Feed the cat in a separate room – one your dog can’t get to. If you have a small dog, install a gate which the cat can jump over. If you have a large dog, install a small flap in the door. This way your cat has free access to her food, but the dog does not.
  • If you don’t have a separate room, keep the cat’s food at an elevated level such as a counter or table. Cats are natural climbers and have no problem in jumping over to an area that a dog can’t reach.
  • Stop free feeding the cat. Leaving cat food out throughout the day provides plenty of opportunities for your dog to sneak over and grab a few bites. Setting a specific time to feed your cat will make her more eager to eat. Remove the leftover food as soon as she’s done eating.

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