Fur-well to ignorance: Five things we learned about pets in 2018

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Fur-well to ignorance: Five things we learned about pets in 2018

Dog lovers are probably going to like the scientists' findings a lot more than cat lovers

Journalist


Endangered wild creatures whose behaviour is documented by nature shows like Planet Earth are not the only ones under human scrutiny.
Around the world, scientists are also studying the mysteries and habits of domesticated pets and companion animals such as horses.
In 2018, dogs, cats and horses once again made headlines as studies about how they think, feel and act gave us humans more insight into their experiences.
Here are five things we didn’t know about them:
1. Dogs know ‘when they don’t know’
Dogs, like chimpanzees and people, look for more information to make an accurate decision when they need it.
A recent study suggests dogs have metacognitive abilities, described as the ability to “know what one knows” (or doesn’t, in the dog experiments).
Researchers from The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany tested this concept by hiding treats – a toy or food reward, either low or high value – behind two fences.
Dogs at the Dog Studies lab checked through a gap in the fence more often when they did not see where the reward was hidden, and probably used their sense of smell to make their choice, said project leader Juliane Brauer.
Published December 2018 in Learning & Behavior
2. Rats outwit cats
Feral cats killed only two wild rats in 79 days, suggesting the Pied Piper may be more effective than Puss in Boots when dealing with pesky rats.
The study in New York City by Dr Michael Parsons was the first to compare feral cats preying on wild rats after the cats invaded a colony of more than 100 rats.
These rats had microchips because scientists were investigating their behaviour. The rats actively avoided the cats.
“Although up to three cats were active beside the rat colony each day, only 20 stalking events, three kill attempts and two successful kills were recorded in this time.
“Both kills took place when cats found rats in hiding; the third attempt was an open-floor chase where the cat lost interest,” said Parsons from Fordham University in the US.
“Our results suggest the benefits of releasing cats are far outweighed by the risks to wildlife.”
On average their rats weigh 330g, roughly 10 times more than a mouse and 20 times more than a typical bird of 15g.
Published September 2018, in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution
3. Sniffing lavender calms horses
It’s a dog’s life, not a horse’s. Horses must routinely deal with the stress of being saddled, bridled, trailered, clipped and much more.
But now a study from the University of Arizona has discovered a way to calm them down: when sniffing lavender from a diffuser, horses’ stress levels dropped significantly.
Arizona horsewoman and professor of physiology and psychology Ann Baldwin said: “You don't need a diffuser, really. Just put a few drops of lavender essential oil on your hand and let your horse sniff.”
Published July 2018, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science
4. Dogs like fats, cats pounce on carbs
High fat, low carb, high protein? When left to choose their own food – as long as it is designed to taste equally good – cats favoured carbohydrates and dogs chose fats.
The research by Prof Jean Hall from the Oregon State University in the US debunked the idea that cats preferred and needed protein.
“Some experts have thought cats need diets that are 40% or 50% protein. Our findings are quite different than the numbers used in marketing and are going to really challenge the pet food industry,” she said.
Prior research showed that cats would choose protein-rich food when the palatability taste was not equally balanced.
How lean and how old they were, influenced their decisions too.
Cats are less active – sleeping about 14 out of 24 hours and grooming about a quarter of the time they are awake – than dogs.
In the experiment, 17 healthy adult dogs and 27 cats got to choose their food over 28 days.
Other research has found that cats can’t resist “catnip” (or catmint), which has an intoxicating effect on them.
Published June 2018, Journal of Experimental Biology
5. Happier horses snort more
When horses snort it’s not a hmph of apathy or annoyance, but rather of contentment.
A study on riding-school horses who spent most of their time in stalls and “naturalistic” horses who lived in pasture showed the same result: they snorted more in a positive mood and in positive situations.
Dr Mathilde Stomp of the Université de Rennes in France said horses living in pastures “emitted significantly more snorts than riding-school horses in comparable contexts”.
She said: “The snort, a nonvocal signal produced by the air expiration through the nostrils is associated with more positive contexts (in pasture while feeding) and states (with ears on forward position) in horses. Moreover, it is less frequent in horses showing an altered welfare.”
Published June 2018, in PLOS ONE

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