Penny, a story of counterconditioning. Part 2

Continued from Penny, a story of counterconditioning | The Animal Nerd

So, with progress made on her overly active greetings, which were affecting the number of shelter volunteers who were allowed to, or willing to, work with her; and with her anxiety at being outdoors reduced to the point that it was no longer apparent, it was time to start work on getting her to tolerate indoor spaces.

I continued taking her to explore outdoor areas and relaxing with her in shady shots where she could watch the comings and goings at the shelter.  And I started experimenting with her behavior indoors.  It soon became apparent that she:  A. Refused to go through any doors except those that were in a direct path the outdoors; B.  Refused to go through any interior corridors; and C. Wouldn’t walk on shiny floors.  She didn’t panic when asked to go to any of these places.  She simply froze in place and refused to move.

All of which would seriously get in the way of getting her adopted.  On the plus side, she was very food motivated, and loves people and other dogs.  So, this gave me something to work with.

In order to get her to tolerate shiny surfaces and being inside a building, I first had to get her to accept going through doors.  I picked an entrance to the shelter that was in a fairly quiet spot and didn’t get a lot of foot traffic, but was near a section of occupied kennels (providing a scent-rich environment).  After she had a nice walk and some down time, I walked her up to the entrance whereupon she balked and froze as soon as the door opened.

Fortunately, I was prepared.  I kept her on leash, propped open the door, sat down and broke out my weapons:  small pieces of sliced of hot dogs, string cheese and the stinkiest training treats that I could buy in my local warehouse store.  I tossed an assortment of them on the ground immediately outside the door and, after some hesitation, she vacuumed them up and got praised.  I repeated this several times, each time tossing the treats closer to the door threshold and praising her every time she stepped closer.  Each time she advanced; I took up some of the slack in the leash without pulling her.  This prevented her from retreating to square one, but also allowed her to establish a new comfort zone.  It also precluded any oppositional pulling.

After several iterations during the following week, I was able to toss the treats inside the door while she stretched inside to get them; then, as I put the treats further inside, she began putting her front paws across the threshold.  And she eventually stepped all the way inside.  Once she was far enough in, I gently closed the door and kept praising her while giving her a good scratch.  That was enough for the first day.  She had earned a good cool down in her run.

The shelter lobby became her favorite place to hang out with her human friends

On the next session, she balked at the door again, but overcame her fear more quickly and with fewer treats.  By the third session, it took half as much time and reinforcement to get her inside.  After that, I was able to get her to stay in the interior corridor without asking to leave, while getting scratches, pets and treats.   I then enlisted some volunteers to join us in the corridor, and she relaxed enough to walk up to each of them and ask for pets.  During the next session we moved further down the corridor and, she willingly entered the main lobby on the following day.

This was the big breakthrough.  After getting her used to being in the lobby of the shelter, I was very quickly able to get her to visit all the public areas in the shelter, and she began to enjoy being around her human friends (e.g., everybody she met).   She willingly used all the building entrances and the shelter lobby became her favorite place.  She was getting very popular with the staff and volunteers, and had lots of positive interaction.

She was still occasionally snapping at the stump of her tail occasionally.  Often when food was provided or she became excited.  I began responding to this by giving her scratches on her butt and  hips whenever she did this.  She initially reacted to my doing this, but after a few repetitions, she began to accept this as a pleasant stimulus and relaxed and leaned into me while I was doing it.  I enlisted other handlers and volunteers to do the same thing, and her self-harming reduced over the next several days as she accepted that activity along  her flanks hindquarters was a good thing.

At this point, we had reduced her fear of being outside her run, had reduced her tendency to self-harm, she was greeting her handlers in a calm and friendly manner and her tendency to self-harm was greatly reduced.  Our staff decided to place her in a foster home to continue her treatment and acclimate her to a home environment outside the shelter, and I felt that she was well on the way.

And that’s when the wheels came off the cart.

To be continued.

Penny, a story of counterconditioning

Part One

So, in late May I was at the shelter, and the Behavior Services manager asked me if I would like to have a “project dog”.  That’s how I met Penny.

She is a 3-year-old, 50 lb mixed breed with a short brindle coat, natural ears and a docked tail.  It turns out that her tail had been docked at the shelter because she was habitually attacking it whenever she had certain stimuli – such as every single meal – and had seriously injured it.

Aside from the compulsive self-harming whenever she was eating or overly excited, Penny showed signs of extreme anxiety.  Her kennel was in a quiet area of the shelter that was closed off to visitors.  Whenever she was taken outside, she would immediately head for the door to relieve herself and then continually try to lead her handler back inside to the safety of her kennel.  She refused to use any door other than the one nearest to her kennel and she would refuse to use any part of the shelter interior beyond the minimum distance between her run and that door.  On the plus side, she was friendly to every person on staff and gave exuberant greetings to her human friends – sometimes so exuberant that it was difficult to handle her – leading to her harness being kept on her at all times.  In her current state, she was a sweet and friendly dog who was completely unadoptable.

She had been held by other shelters and fosters prior to arriving at ours.  And the somewhat sketchy history that came along with her indicated that these were long-standing behavior problems – particularly her tendency to attack and injure her tail.  At this point, she had been in the shelter for almost two months, between her initial quarantine, her surgery and recovery, there hadn’t been much work done on addressing her behavior problems.   After getting the initial run-down of her (many) issues, I worked out a set of priorities with our behavior staff.

  • First:  We needed to reduce the anxiety she had being outdoors.
  • Second:  We needed her to be able to use doors and interior spaces outside the “safe space” of her kennel.
  • Third:  We needed to reduce her tendency to attack her own body parts – even with her tail docked, she was still showing a tendency to snap at her own flank and hip when food was present or she was overly stimulated.
  • Fourth:  We needed to help her control her overly-excited greetings, particularly with new people.

So…I got to work.

First things first:  Getting her to at least tolerate being outdoors.

I took her out of her run as quietly and matter-of-factly as possible.  I found that the usual method of quieting a jumping dog (negative reinforcement – removing the response to jumping, turning my back and standing still) worked very well.  I then stayed to one side of her while attaching the leash to her martingale collar and easy-walk harness.

I then took her outside by her usual route.  She was in a hurry to “do her business” and then wanted to return to her indoors kennel.  By changing direction a few times, I was able to get her to walk at oblique angles to her initial route back to her safe place, and get her to spend some time outside.  I noticed that when she was actively sniffing a new scent, she relaxed.  Her ears went back, her tail went up, her back relaxed, and she forgot to be afraid.   I could work with that.  I found a bench in a shady spot and sat with her for a while, not interacting with her unless she solicited any touching or petting, and just let her experience the day.  She never really relaxed on that first day, but she didn’t try to escape or go back inside until I brought her back indoors.

For the next two weeks, I took her outside and made a point of walking her on the shelter grounds in areas that other dogs frequented and along the tree lines where rabbits and other local wildlife were common.  Basically, anywhere that was a scent-rich environment.  This was a positive experience for her; and within those two-weeks she completely lost her anxiety about being outdoors and enjoyed experiencing the entire area that our shelter encompasses, several acres of open land.

I then took her to our outdoor exercise area, which is a large open grassy area inside a six-foot fence.  The first time I unclipped her leash inside it, she immediately ran to the gate and started leaping at it, trying to escape.  I leashed her back up and walked her around the inside perimeter of the exercise pen, letting her stop and sniff whenever she wanted, before taking her back outside for some quiet time.  After that, I made a point of taking her to the exercise area immediately after some other dogs had been there, creating a scent-rich environment.  Over the next week, she became interested in investigating the scents and was able to enjoy being there and relaxing off-leash.

Step One done. After three weeks, she was no longer anxious about being outdoors, and was associating outdoor time with interesting nose work and relaxation.  And we had made progress made on Step Four.   This was going so easily, I was feeling pretty optimistic.

To be continued.

Mysterious Bird Disease – Take Down Your Feeders

In the past few weeks, a new deadly disease has emerged on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, affecting a wide variety of songbirds.   Scientists are still trying to determine the nature of the illness and how it is transmitted, and whether it is a new virus or a fungal infection, but it is causing thousands of deaths across a wide range of unrelated bird species, including robins, blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers,  and others (Malakoff & Stokeland, 2021).

This infected bird was found in Washington  DC  in May of this year

The symptoms include crusted and inflamed eyes and the neurological symptoms include inability to stand and head tremors.  The birds are unable to fly or feed themselves and eventually die.
The disease was first noted in the Washington DC area in May of this year (USGS, 2021), but rapidly spread to the adjacent states.  It is now appearing in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and is continuing to spread.  Although the nature of the illness is still unknown, based on its rapid spread throughout the eastern and midwestern states, it appears to be highly contagious across a wide range of bird species (Zenkevitch, 2021; ).

We can help to limit the spread of the disease by reducing the number of places where songbirds congregate and are likely to infect each other.  State authorities, even in areas such as the New England states in which the disease has not yet been found, are asking that we take down our bird feeders and bird baths until the disease has subsided, and that they be thoroughly cleaning with a 10 percent bleach solution before being put back in use (RI DEM, 2021; AP, 2021).

This isn’t a lot to ask.  If we’re feeding the birds because we want them to be well fed and we enjoy having them in our lives then, until this disease runs its course, it makes sense for us to encourage them to look for natural sources of food and not congregate in large numbers at a common feeding site.  Our wild bird populations are already under stress from climate change and loss of habitat.  There is no reason for us to add to that by facilitating the spread of a disease.  Lets take down our feeders and bird baths, clean them thoroughly, and wait until we hear that its safe to put the up again.

Associated Press (July 8, 2021).  Residents Told to Stop Filling Feeders to Avert Bird Illness.  Retrieved from apnews.com/article/ct-state-wire-birds-health-environment-and-nature-412ec4d6d2ec8c1c23f772a577795394

Malakoff, D. and Stokeland, E. (Jul 6, 2021).  Songbirds are Mysteriously Dying Across the Eastern U.S.  Scientists are Scrambling to Find Out Why.  Science Magazine.  Retrieved from Songbirds are mysteriously dying across the eastern U.S. Scientists are scrambling to find out why | Science | AAAS (sciencemag.org)

Rhode Island DEM, Division of Fish and Wildlife (July 8, 2021). Wildlife Health Alert.  Retrieved from www.facebook.com/RIFishwildlife/

USGS (July 2, 2021).  UPDATED Interagency Statement:  USGS and Partners Continue Investigating DC Area Bird Mortality Event.  Retrieved from UPDATED Interagency Statement: USGS and Partners Continue Investigating DC Area Bird Mortality Event

Zenkevich, J. (July 7, 2021).  More Than 1,000 cases of Mysterious Bird Disease Reported in Pennsylvania.  WESA.  Retrieved from More than 1,000 Cases of Mysterious Bird Disease Reported In Pennsylvania | 90.5 WESA

Reiki for Animals

This article is the latest in my discussion of alternative medicine approaches that have become commonplace in the care and treatment of our companion animals.  Today, we will discuss the art of Reiki.

What is Reiki?

According to its practitioners

“Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing. It is administered by “laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one’s “life force energy” is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy.”  (What is Reiki, nd)

The origin of Reiki dates back to the early 20th century Japan and is credited to Mikao Usei.  Usei is said to have investigated ancient, lost healing arts and rediscovered the art of directing Universal Life-Force Energy (Rowland, 2010) for the purpose of healing illness and injury.  The research he is supposed to have performed in recovering this healing art is not documented and a plethora of legends have sprung up about it.  Some accounts invented by later Reiki practitioners say that he journeyed to India to study with healing mystics there and others imply that he learned the methods by which the Buddha performed healing miracles (Monckton, nd). He is said to have trained a few disciples in this healing art who, in turn, trained others.  Over the years, this practice has become both refined and varied in its application.

What is a Reiki practitioner?

There are three levels of Reiki “mastery”, each of which can be learned from a course of instruction.  There is no oversight or professional certification for Reiki; students are certified by whichever organization they enroll in for courses of training (Nelson, nd; Crowhurst, nd.)  Many of these courses are available online for home study.  Reiki practitioners are said to be “attuned” by the Reiki master who trains them, either in person or by correspondence (Adams, 2016)

How is Reiki administered?

There really is no standard of treatment for Reiki practitioners.

  • Touch: Traditional Reiki is administered by the practitioner physically touching the person who is under treatment and channeling healing energy to that person through his or her hands.

    Non-touch animal Reiki

    There are standard locations for this touching to take place (the seven chakras of the human body), however the practitioner is also able to place his hands anywhere that he feels the flow of energy is required (Cutler, 2011)

  • Non-touch: In cases of physical injury, Reiki practitioners will often position their hands over the injury, claiming that healing energies are being channeled into the wounded or injured area.   This is often done in Reiki treatments of animals.  This is often done from a considerable distance, for the safety of the Reiki practitioner (Adams 2016).  Practitioners will also “beam” Reiki from across a room for safety reasons (Paul, nd).
  • Remotely: Reiki is also administered remotely, over great distances, across time and space, by the practitioner holding a piece of paper with a “patient’s” name and address, or even a picture of that person, while manipulating symbols or crystals.  This is done by means of “The Hermetic Law of Similarity” which states that we are all made of energy and are therefore all connected (Johnson, 2015).

What is the standard of treatment?

Given that Reiki is administered either by touch, without touching, across a room or across great distances, there is no standard of treatment.  Nor are there any specific standards for addressing particular injuries or ailments; this is all left to the subjective judgement of the Reiki practitioner.

And there is no standard of training.  Every Reiki instructor certifies his or her own students in whatever methods are included in that course of training.  There is no measurement of effectiveness except for the subjects’ feelings of whether they have been helped by the treatment.

How is it used in veterinary treatment?

Canine chakras

It is used to treat animals for a variety of conditions, by the same touch, non-touch, distance methods discussed above.  Some Reiki practitioners have identified the locations of animals’ chakras, which would server to determine where the healing energy should be directed.

Does Reiki work?

There are very few quality studies of Reiki.  Most have been found to be seriously flawed by lack of control groups, subjective interpretation of data and other flaw.  A 2008 review of clinical trials of Reiki treatment for a variety of conditions concluded:

“In total, the trial data for any one condition are scarce and independent replications are not available for each condition. Most trials suffered from methodological flaws such as small sample size, inadequate study design and poor reporting…In conclusion, the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition. Therefore the value of reiki remains unproven.” (Lee, Pittler & Ernst, 2008)

One 2017 review of studies, performed by a member of the Australian Usei Reiki Association, claimed that the majority of clinical trials indicate that Reiki is ‘a safe and gentle “complementary” therapy that activates the parasympathetic nervous system to heal body and mind.’  (McManus, 2017).  However, it should be noted that the author of this review has no medical qualifications, and that the parasympathetic nervous system controls resting heart rate and digestion and performs no healing functions.

A 2011 study examined the use of Reiki in which a group of people undergoing chemotherapy underwent treatment by certified practitioners, while another group were treated by untrained persons performing “sham Reiki”, with a third (control) group of patients undergoing standard care.   This study found that the persons treated by both the certified and “sham” (placebo) groups reported the same results in terms of well-being and comfort in comparison with the control group.  The study concluded that there is no medical benefit derived from Reiki, but that patients derive a sense of well-being from one-on-one care from a nurse practitioner, regardless of the care being provided (Catlin & Taylor-Ford, 2011).  I was also able to find a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study found that Reiki had no effect over placebo on subject’s heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and stress (Bat, 2021).

So, based on the evidence, we can only conclude that Reiki is a placebo. And, despite its popularity and the mythology surrounding it, there is no indication that it has any medical or therapeutic value.  As the Catlin and Taylor-Ford study indicated, the value of Reiki is simply the one-on-one presence of a supportive person.

But, if it’s a placebo, how can it work on pets?

The simple answer is that it doesn’t.  The placebo effect is felt by the animals’ owners.  The owners are primed by the Reiki practitioner to see signs of improvement in their animals and, being inclined to believe in this treatment, fall victim to confirmation bias.  This is particularly the case with dogs.   Dogs are very attuned to our moods and are adept at reading our body language and facial expressions, and they look to us for social cues.  If a dog sees that his owner is encouraged or relieved that a treatment is perceived to be working, then that dog will respond to the owner’s change in mood – further reinforcing the owner’s belief that Reiki has worked wonders.

Conclusion:

I am sure that many Reiki practitioners are sincere and honestly believe in their work.  But the simple fact is that there is no medical value in this “therapy”.  And, if it is used in place of proven, science-based veterinary medicine, then it is harmful and amounts to withholding care from suffering animals.

References:

Adams, T. (January 4, 2016).  Reiki for Animals.  Retrieved from Reiki for Animals | Intuitive Understanding

Bat, N. (2021).  The Effects of Reiki on Heart Rate, Blood Pressure, Body Temperature, and Stress Levels: a Pilot Randomized, Double-Blinded, and Placebo-Controlled Study.  Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice 43 (5).  doi:  10.1016/j.ctcp.2021.101328

Catlin, A. and Taylor-Ford, R. L. (2011).  Investigation of Standard Care Versus Reiki Placebo Versus Actual Reiki Therapy to Enhance Comfort and Well-Being in a Chemotherapy Infusion Center.  Oncology Nursing Forum 38 (3).  doi:  10.1188/11.ONF.E212-E220

Crowhurst, M. (nd). Reiki Level I, II and Master Certification – Energy Healing.  Retrieved from Reiki Certificate: Master Certification in Energy Healing | Udemy

Cutler, N. (2011). Reiki Hand Positions. Institute for Integrative Healthcare.  Retrieved from Reiki Hand Positions | Massage Professionals Update (integrativehealthcare.org)

Johnson, K. (2015).  The Awesomeness of Distance Reiki.  Retrieved from universoulheart.net/soul-journeys-2/the-awesomeness-of-distance-reiki.html

Lee, M. S., Pittler, M. H. and Ernst, E. (2008).  Effects of Reiki in Clinical Practice:  A Systematic Review of Randomized Clinical Trials.  The International Journal of Clinical Practice 62 (6).  P 947-954.  doi:  10.1111/j.1742-1241.2008.01729.x

McManus, D. E. (2017). Reiki is Better Than Placebo and Has Broad Potential as a Complementary Health Therapy.  Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine 22 (4).  1051 –  1057.  doi: 10.1177/2156587217728644

Monckton, G. (nd). The History of Reiki.  Retrieved from The History of Reiki (georgianamoncktonreiki.com)

Nelson, D. (nd). Reiki Infinite Healer.  Retrieved from Reiki Infinite Healer Course | Chakras, Symbols + Certification

Paul, N. (nd). Using Reiki for the Family Pet. Retrieved from Using Reiki for the Family Pet – dummies

Rowland, A. Z.  (2010).  The Complete Book of Traditional Reiki, Practical Methods for Personal and Planetary Healing.  Kindle Edition, Retrieved from Amazon.com

What is Reiki? (nd), The International Center for Reiki Training.  Retrieved from What is Reiki? | Reiki

Disaster Planning

We are living in an era when the climate is getting warmer and creating severe weather conditions.  The Atlantic hurricane season is starting earlier and the storms are getting stronger. Out west, we have unprecedented heat and drought; the western states are drying out and are at increasing risk of large fires.  Cities are experiencing heat emergencies during months when temperatures used to be moderate.  Disaster Planning is becoming a necessity for animal owners.

Every one of us could be required to evacuate their homes at short notice, due to some disaster or weather emergency.  The question becomes, what do to with our pets?  Most of us would simply assume that our pets can go with us.  This is true, but only if we plan in advance.  A lack of planning and preparedness could be disastrous, as we have seen in past natural disasters when people were forced to abandon their homes and animals.

I’m not saying that you should be in a constant state of readiness to flee your home, however if a hurricane is being forecasted in the next several days, or if the area in which you live is at high risk for fire, you should have a plan and some preparations made to leave for a safer place to ride out the emergency.  This should include knowing which vehicles to use, making sure their maintained and fueled, having a ready bag that includes medications, some food and clothing, important papers, prescriptions, medical records, identification, contact numbers, mobile phones and chargers, etc.  You should also have a route planned and be informed of your county’s and state’s disaster planning.

But what to do regarding your pets?  What items should you have ready, or pre-packed for the event of evacuation?  The following is compiled from materials provided by the Department of Homeland Security, the Red Cross, the ASPCA and the Humane Society (links provided below).

Before going further, bear in mind that these are things you have to plan for prior to the emergency.  You need to do your research now, make your plans now; and make sure you have the documentation and supplies on hand before the emergency is upon you.

What to do if you can evacuate and take your pets with you.

If you think that you’ll have to evacuate, do not wait until the last minute.  You want to be one of the first people out of a dangerous area, not one of the last ones to leave.

Have an evacuation plan.  Have a safe destination picked out and know whether it can accommodate both you and your animals.  Or have an alternative safe place identified that can take care of your pets during the evacuation.

If you plan to stay in a hotel, identify several in the area that you plan to stay in that accept pets. The Humane Society link at the end of this article lists several resources for finding them.

If you are going to stay with a friend or relative, make arrangements with them in advance.

Keep in mind that most Red Cross shelters, and many state shelters, cannot accept pets.  If you are going to one of these shelters, have a list of places that accept the pets of evacuated families, along with contact information and directions.

In the event that you have to be separated from your pets during an evacuation, find shelters, boarding kennels or veterinarians in the area that you plan to be staying that can take your pet temporarily.  Your local emergency management office is a good source of this information.

Have a portable crate or carrier for your pets, along with a leash and reliable collar for use during travel.  Keep in mind that you and your pets will both be stressed and anxious, and there is a risk that they’ll panic and try to escape.

Have your pets’ medications (in a waterproof container), and copies of their medical records, vaccination record and prescriptions.

Have a pre-written set of instructions and schedule for feeding your pet(s) and for administering any medications.  You might be separated from them at some point and have them cared for at a different location than yours.

Have a sealed, airtight container with enough of their food to last while you anticipate being out of your home.  Bring you pets’ food and water bowls.

Have your pets’ identification information, including microchip number and city registration, and a picture of you and your pet together (in case you are separated for any reason).

Have enough drinking water for you and your pet to last for a few days.

Comfort items:  Bring the bedding and toys that you would normally provide if you were boarding your pet in a kennel for a few days.  Bring poop bags and cleaning supplies/disinfectants.  Bring your cat’s litter box and a bag of clean litter.

What to do if you cannot evacuate.  How can you keep your pet safe if you must shelter in place?

Prepare a safe, closed, room where rescuers can find your animals.  Make sure that it doesn’t have any escape routes or places where the animals can hide or get stuck.

Have you pet’s crate in that room, stock that room with the food and supplies mentioned above, along with any medications.

If you must leave your home but can’t take your pet.  Here are some steps you can take:

Prepare the safe room as described above and leave the pet in it with accessible dry food and a lot of water.  It will be a mess when you return, but that can be cleaned up afterwards.

Do not leave them outside, even in a run or pen.  And absolutely do not turn them loose to fend for themselves.

The ASPCA recommends placing a notice on your door to alert police and rescuers that pets are inside.

A final note:  These recommendations were obviously written with common household pets in mind.  Large animals, such as horses, or exotic pets will require special care and planning for disasters that are outside my area of expertise.  The ASPCA disaster preparedness site (below) has recommendations and resources for the owners of these animals.

 

References

Disaster Preparedness | ASPCA

disaster-preparedness-checklist.pdf (aspca.org)

Prepare Your Pets for Disasters | Ready.gov

Pet Safety in Emergencies | Healthy Pets, Healthy People | CDC

Make a disaster plan for your pets | The Humane Society of the United States

Pet Disaster Preparedness & Recovery | American Red Cross

Do Thundershirts® Work?

In a dog’s world, fireworks and thunderstorms are very similar.  Both involve sudden flashes of light, loud and low-level noises, new scents (ozone from a thunderstorm and gunpowder from fireworks).  Dogs can become very fearful of these experiences, sometimes to the point of developing extreme fear responses or phobias.  Much of this varies according to the dog’s experiences with sudden noises, its early exposure to these stimuli and the dog’s general personality (Blackwell, Bradshaw & Casey, 2013).  In these cases, many owners have attempted to relieve their dogs’ fear by means of a pressure wrap, sometimes marketed under Thundershirt®.

Dogs have a variety of fear-related reactions to thunder or fireworks, including hiding.

Anxiety wraps have been used to treat behavioral issues in autism patients and to aid in reducing fear and stress.  Deep pressure, such as firm hugs and muscle massage has been shown to release endorphins that can relieve pain and provide a sense of well-being in the short term (McKenzie, 2011).  However, the question remains whether a light sense of pressure, such as provided by an anxiety-wrap, can provide the deep endorphin-releasing stimulus that a massage provides; and, if so, whether wearing a wrap for the duration of a fireworks display or thunderstorm is effective.

So, do they work?  Possibly.  But there’s very little evidence to support the claims made by manufacturers and marketers of these products.

First off, much of the evidence presented to support the claims of effectiveness are in the form of testimonials or product endorsements.  This sort of claim should always be taken with a pinch of salt, as they are often simply invented by sales staffs.
The majority of the other claims of effectiveness are anecdotal reports by laypersons, based on their observations of their own pets.  This sort of reporting is generally unreliable, simply because of the strong possibility of unintentional confirmation bias on the part of the dog owner.  That, and the possibility of a sort of placebo effect on the owners’ part, in which they see improvement that may not actually be present.

With regard to clinical evidence, there is very little.  The one quality study that I could find shows that pressure wraps do nothing to affect the physical symptoms of fear and anxiety (measured heart rate) but did result in some changes in the dogs’ anxiety-related behaviors.  Which indicates that the dogs’ fear wasn’t reduced, but their behavior in expressing that fear was affected (King, Buffington, Smith & Grandin, 2014).   This begs the question as to whether the pressure wrap is actually helping the dog.  The dog may appear calmer, but is simply staying still because he feels inhibited in his movements (Buzhardt, nd).   A review of related studies published in 2018 indicated that most studies were based on owners’ subjective assessments of their dogs’ emotional states and concluded that the vests may have small positive effects but that owners should have no expectation or any benefits from using them (Buckley, 2018).

As a behavior consultant, I am skeptical of the anecdotal claims made regarding these products.  As stated above, a fair number of them are dubious in nature (this is the internet, after all) and may simply be cases of “astroturfing”.  And, as discussed above, claims made by individual dog owners can’t be considered reliable, no matter how well-intentioned.  They are not disinterested parties and are not making controlled studies.   Also, the vast majority of owners do not have the training to accurately diagnose dogs’ behaviors, and do not have the facilities to measure heartrate, blood pressure and cortisol levels associated with severe anxiety.
I am also somewhat concerned about the use of these products without the involvement of behavior professionals:   Incorrectly used, a dog may come to associate the vest with unpleasant stimuli that it is intended to alleviate, making the fear response worse.  Also, if worn for extended periods, the dog may become habituated to the vest, making it ineffective.   And, if a dog is overwhelmed by the noise, sight and smells going on around him, adding the stimulus of touch may be the worst thing that an owner can do.

Mainly, I am reluctant to recommend these products simply because they do nothing to reduce the dog’s fears.  They do not address the underlying causes of the extreme anxiety and stress that the dog is experiencing.

The way to alleviate dogs’ (and peoples’) fear of objects or situations is to change their emotional state through desensitization and counterconditioning.   These involve treating the dog’s sensitivity to the event that is causing the fear reaction, by gradually increasing the dog’s tolerance to it and/or by introducing a positive experience that the dog can come to associate with the anxiety-causing event (Todd, 2018).  The goal is to help the dog by reducing the amount of fear and anxiety that he experiences in response to certain stimuli, in this case thunder or fireworks.  The goal of a behaviorist is to help a patient be less afraid, instead of outwardly seeming less fearful.
In some cases, veterinary assistance may be needed.  At the risk of introducing an anecdote, I have been involved in a case in which a dog was left alone in a house during a particularly violent thunderstorm and developed an extreme fear to them.  This was treated by a veterinary behaviorist, who prescribed a low dose of valium to be taken when thunderstorms were imminent.  After a few treatments, the dog “learned” that she was not fearful during the thunderstorms and her reactions to the storms were greatly lessened.

What’s the takeaway?

As stated by King et al, “This pressure wrap can be used adjunctively in a treatment program for dogs with these specific anxiety diagnoses, but should not replace current treatment options (behavior modification and medication) for canine Separation Anxiety and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Caution must be practiced if using the ThunderShirt for dogs with phobic reactions to loud noises or thunderstorms, as this had not been studied with the canine anxiety diagnoses.”

I suggest that they may be used as part of a treatment program that employs science-based behavior assessment and modification techniques to reduce the fear that dogs associate with thunderstorms or fireworks; but should not be relied upon by pet owners as a stand-alone treatment that is administered at home.

References

Blackwell, E. J., Bradshaw, J. W. S. and Casey, R A. (2013).  Fear Responses to Noises in Domestic Dogs:  Prevalence, Risk Factors and Co-Occurance with Other Fear Related Behaviour.  Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 145 (1-2).  15 – 25.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004

Buckley, L. A. (2018).  Are Pressure Vests Beneficial at Reducing Stress in Anxious and Fearful Dogs?  Veterinary Evidence, 3 (1). doi:  10.18849/VE.V311.152

Buzhardt, L.  (nd). Anxiety Vests for Dogs.  Retrieved from Anxiety Vests for Dogs | VCA Animal Hospital (vcahospitals.com)

King, C., Buffington, L., Smith, T. J. and Grandin, T. (2014).  The Effect of a Pressure Wrap (Thundershirt®) on Heart Rate and Behavior in Canines Diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 9 (5). 215-221.  Doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2014.06.007

McKenzie, B. (2011) Pressure Wraps for Anxiety in Dogs.  Retrieved from Pressure Wraps for Anxiety in Dogs | (skeptvet.com)

Todd, Z. (2018).  What is Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning in Dog Training?  Retrieved from What is Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning in Dog Training? (companionanimalpsychology.com)

Just be quiet

One thing that I have learned from years of working with insecure, reactive and fearful shelter dogs is the value of just being quiet.  Just relaxing with your dog is one of the best things you can do for your dog’s emotional stability and well-being.  And it’s not bad for you, either.

You don’t need to be a constant source of entertainment for your dog, and you don’t need to provide constant stimulation.  In fact, it immensely helps your dog for you both to be in a mildly stimulating environment, like a park or green space, and just relax.

Anytime you take your dog for a walk, your pup is constantly receiving new stimuli.  His nose, ears and eyes are taking in new information all the time you are out of the house, and his brain is actively processing all that data.  You don’t need to do anything else, except be a steady and positive companion.  I’ve found that being a quiet and calm influence in information-rich environments can help a nervous or reactive dog to find his “off-switch” and learn that he can live in the world without becoming anxious or over-excited.

When weather permits, take your dog on a walk to a quiet, pleasant place and just sit.  Read a book – a real book with pages.  Don’t look at your phone, get any work done, watch any videos or read anything that has a string of nasty and stupid comments at the end.  Just relax and find your own off-switch.  Let your dog sniff and explore within the range of his leash and do whatever he’s going to do.

After a while, you’ll find that he is just scenting the air, listening to new sounds and watching things that are interesting to him.  If he’s being at all reactive to any of that, take him to a new spot and start over.  It may take some time, but you’ll find that he will eventually sit or lay down and relax with you.  Watch the shape of his eyes and the corners of his mouth, along with the position of his ears.  You’ll be able to tell when he’s just quietly enjoying the day.  With you.

This will do wonders for your relationship with your dog, and will help him to learn how to be less reactive to stimulus.  If he sees that you are not stressed or bothered by the people, animals and things you encounter, he will take that as a reference for his own behavior.  This is good therapy for you both.

If You Love Your Cat, Keep Him Indoors

One of the most enduring myths about our pets is that housecats need to be allowed to roam free in our neighborhoods.  The fact is, they don’t.  In fact, being let outdoors will shorten their lives, along with those of a lot of other animals.

Studies of the life expectancy of roaming cats vary, with some claiming that their life expectancy is as low as two to five years (Watson, nd; Loyd et al, 2013a), however this is complicated by the difficulty that researchers have in distinguishing between feral cats, strays and pets that are allowed to roam outside the house.  But all of these cats face the same dangers and threats to their health and lives.

The leading cause of death for roaming cats is by automobiles (Tan, Stellato & Niel, 2020).  Lesser, but still serious risks are becoming trapped or lost, drinking dangerous substances, being poisoned, fighting with other cats or wildlife, or being preyed upon by wild predators, such as foxes, coyotes or raptors (Loyd et al, 2013a).  They are also at high risk for exposure to diseases and parasites, many of which can be passed to their human families, such as tularemia, rabies, ringworm and other human-transmissible pathogens or parasites (Gerhold & Jessup, 2012).  One of the greatest threats to human health from free-roaming cats is toxoplasmosis, an intestinal microorganism that can spread throughout households from an infected cat (Aguirre, et al, 2019).  All of these factors represent serious threats to their health and well-being and significantly shortens the life expectancy of any cats that are allowed to freely roam their neighborhoods.

And there is also the damage they inflict on other animals.  Unlike dogs, cats have been domesticated for only a few thousand years and have retained their predatory instincts to a much greater extent.  When allowed to roam, they’ll establish a range of up to 1,500 meters from their homes and spend much of their time hunting (Nicholas, 2019).   And they are efficient killers of the birds and small animals that make up the ecosystem we live in.  A 2012 study showed

Cats retain their predatory instincts and will stalk and kill small animals regardless of how well they are fed at home.

that cats will actively engage in hunting small prey regardless of how well fed they are at home (Kitts-Morgan, Parsons & Hilburn, 2014) and, on average, will kill two prey animals per week (Loyd et al, 2013b).  A 2016 study of animals admitted to a Virginia wildlife hospital showed that cat attacks were the second leading cause of small birds and animals being treated (Mcruer, Gray, Horne & Clark, 2016).

The bottom line is that allowing your cats to roam not only endangers them and shortens their lives significantly, it places you and your family at risk for diseases and parasites.  They also prey on small birds and animals, and represent a risk to the ecosystems in our towns and neighborhoods.  There is no good reason to allow them out of the house, and every reason to keep them indoors.

If you have a cat that has been allowed to roam and would like to make the transition to keeping him indoors, The Wildlife Center of Virginia has published a step by step guide to accomplish this:  Steps to Bring Your Outdoor Cat Indoors | The Wildlife Center of Virginia

 

References

Aguirre, A.A., Longcore, T., Barbieri, M. et al (2019). The One Health Approach to Toxoplasmosis: Epidemiology, Control, and Prevention Strategies. EcoHealth 16, 378–390. doi.org/10.1007/s10393-019-01405-7

Gerhold, R. W. and Jessup, D. A. (2012).  Zoonotic Diseases Associated with Free-Roaming Cats.  Zoonoses and Public Health 60 (3). doi 10.1111/j.1863-2378.2012.01522.x.

Kitts-Morgan, S., Parsons, E. and Hilburn, K. A. (2014). Sustainable Ecosystems:  Free-Ranging Cats and Their Effect on Wildlife Populations.  Paper presented at the 2014 ADSA-ASAS-CSAS Joint Annual Meeting

Loyd, R. A., Hernandez, S. M., Shock, B. C., Abernathy, K. J. and Marshall, G. J. (2013a).  Risk Behaviors Exhibited by Free-Roaming Cats in a Suburban US Town.  Veterinary Record (2013).  Doi:  10.1136/vr.101222

Loyd, R. A., Hernandez, S. M., Carroll, J. P., Abernathy, K. J. and Marshall, G. J. (2013b).  Quantifying Free-Roaming Domestic Cat Predation Using Animal-Borne Video Cameras.  Biological Conservations 160. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2013.01.008

Mcruer, D. L., Gray, L. C., Horne, L. and Clark, E. E. (2016).  Free-Roaming Cat Interactions with Wildlife Admiited to a Wildlife Hospital.  The Journal of Wildlife Management 81 (1).  pp 163-173.  doi:  10.1002/jwmg,21181

Nicholas, J. (2019). What Cats Do When They’re Out at Night.  Preventive Vet.  Retrieved from What Cats Do When They’re Out at Night (preventivevet.com)

Tan, S. M. L., Stellato, A. C. and Niel, L. (2020).  Uncontrolled Outdoor Access for Cats:  An Assessment of Risks and Benefits.  Animals 10 (258).  doi:  10.3390/ani10020258

Watson, S. (nd) Should You Have an Indoor Cat or an Outdoor Cat?  WebMD.  Retrieved from Indoor Vs. Outdoor Cats: Health and Safety (webmd.com)

It’s Tick Season. Protect your pets from tick-borne illnesses.

It’s Tick Season

If you live pretty much anywhere in the United States, you are in tick country.  These little parasite arachnids are not only a pest, they present a serious health risk for both humans and their pets.  There are numerous tick species in the US that present varying levels of threats to us, our pets and wildlife (Mayo Clinic, 2021).   I’ll be discussing what they are and how they feed in for a little bit; if you’re a little squeamish you might want to skip down a couple of paragraphs.

What are they?

Basically, they’re bloodsuckers.  They are opportunistic feeders that are found in tall grass, low-hanging bushes and leaf litter, along the edges of wooded areas and in gardens; that will crawl onto any animal that brushes up against the plant material they’re using at the time (New York State, 2011).  Once a tick finds itself on a promising host animal, it will crawl to a protected area on that animals skin and plant its mouth into the skin.  The tick then injects its saliva into the bite, alternating with sucking blood from its victim.  The saliva facilitates feeding by suppressing any local pain or immune system response, allowing it to remain attached and feeding for days at a time.  This saliva also acts as a transmission mechanism for various tick-borne pathogens (Bonnet, Kazimírová, Richardson & Šimo, 2018).  The tick will remain attached for up to 10 days, while it becomes engorged on its hosts blood before dropping off.

Aside from feeding off their hosts, ticks present a serious danger.  They are a disease vector for a number of diseases, such as Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, along with others, that can affect both us and our pets (CDC, 2020).  These illnesses are contracted by the ticks’ victims as the ticks remain attached while feeding.

How to Prevent Tick Bites

There are a number of things you can do to protect your pets from ticks:

First off:  Keep your lawns mowed and gardens trimmed to reduce the risk of ticks being present in them.  Clear any piles of leaves or brush.  Don’t allow your pets to roam in areas where ticks are likely to be found. If possible, put a fence around your yard to prevent deer from visiting and depositing ticks.

Second:  If your pets have been in an area with low plants or high grass, check them for ticks.  In fact, check them regularly.   As I said above, ticks tend to attach themselves to dogs in protected areas, including in the ears, around the base of the tail, under their front legs, on their bellies, and a few others (CDC, 2019).  Your pets can also be treated with topical sprays and powders to kill any ticks they may have picked up.  However, you should consult your veterinarian before using any such preventatives regularly.

Third:  Have your veterinarian prescribe a flea and tick preventative and keep your pets on them year-round.  It is important to follow your vets’ advice in this and obtain these medications from a trusted source.

  • Your vet should be fully knowledgeable of any medications that your dogs is currently taking and is the best source for understanding the risks to your dog. He is in the best position to know what particular flea and tick medications should be prescribed.  For example, collies and related breeds often have a genetic anomaly that causes a deadly reaction to the drug Ivermectin; and preventatives that contain Ivermectin should be avoided in dogs with this genetic condition.  Your vet will be able to ensure that you are using safe and effective preventatives.  Also, as discussed in my March 2021 article on Seresto collars (March, 2021 | The Animal Nerd), medications are also prescribed based on your dogs size and related factors.  This is something that is best left to professionals.
  • There have been frequent reports of counterfeit pet medications being marketed to pet owners, with ingredients that can range from being completely ineffective to downright dangerous. Use trusted sources, such as your veterinarian or a reputable pharmacy for flea and tick preventatives, along with all of your pets’ other medications (EPA, 2004).
  • Another reason to use veterinarian-prescribed preventatives from trusted sources is that they are proven effective and safe. There are a number of internet sources that cite “natural” or “home-made” tick preventatives, with no evidence that they are either safe or effective.  Look for preventatives that have “Approved by the FDA” on their label (Roberts, 2018).

Fourth:  Have your dog inoculated against Lyme Disease.  There is a safe and effective Lyme vaccine that will keep your dog protected from that tick-borne illness.

What to do if you find a tick on your pet?

So, if you find a tick on your pet, what do you do?  Remove it as quickly and safely as possible.

Using a fine-tipped tweezers, grip the tick firmly by the head at the point where it is attached to your pet’s skin, and gently and firmly pull it upward and away. Do not squeeze the ticks’ body as that can cause infectious material or pathogens to be injected into your pet.  And do not twist while pulling, as that can result in the tick’s mouth breaking off and remaining in the dog (Although this sounds gross, it is not a big deal.  If they’re left in the dog, the mouth parts will eventually dry up and fall away, or you can just remove them like a splinter.  Still, its best to avoid this happening.)

You can also buy special tools such as “tick keys”, which are small devices that you can use to safely pull the tick away from your pet’s skin.  One advantage to these items is that they can be carried on your key chain for handy use.

Once the tick has been removed and disposed of (e.g., flushed), keep an eye on the site of the bite for a few days.  Normally, there will be a small rash or skin irritation that clears up within a couple of days.  However, if a circular red rash or a bulls-eye rash persists, consult your veterinarian as that can be an indication of a disease process or infection.

And, lastly, be familiar with the general symptoms of tick-borne diseases.  This is important for your family and your pets.  I can tell you from personal experience that these are serious medical conditions that can severely harm your pet.

References:

Bonnet, S., Kazimírová, M., Richardson, J. and Šimo, L. (2018).  Tick Saliva and Its Role in Pathogen Transmission.  In N. Boulanger (Ed.), Skin and Arthropod Vectors , Academic Press, London, UK

CDC (2019a).  Ticks, On Pets.  Retrieved from Preventing ticks on your pets | Ticks | CDC

CDC (2019b). Symptoms of Tickborne Illness.  Retrieved from Symptoms of Tickborne Illness | Ticks | CDC

CDC (2020). Diseases Transmitted by Ticks.  Retrieved from Diseases Transmitted by Ticks | Ticks | CDC

EPA (2004).  Fact Sheet:  Retailers and Counterfeit Pet Products.  Retrieved from U.S. EPA – Fact Sheet – Retailers and Counterfeit Pet Products

Mayo Clinic (2021).  Slide Show:  Guide to Different Tick Species and the Diseases They Carry.  Retrieved from www.mayoclinic.org/tick-species/sis-20147911?s-8

New York State (2011).  Be Tick Free – A Guide to Preventing Lyme Disease.  Retrieved from Be Tick Free – A Guide for Preventing Lyme Disease (ny.gov)

Roberts, C. (2018).  Should You Use Natural Tick Prevention for Your Dog or Cat?  Consumer Reports.  Retrieved from Use Natural Tick Prevention for Dog or Cat? – Consumer Reports