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Misunderstood animals: if we look and listen, we can learn

01 June 2016, at 1:00am

Francesca Riccomini suggests that once owners learn to understand what their animals are telling them, many common problems can be sorted - or avoided.

CHATTING RECENTLY WITH PEOPLE I DON’T KNOW WELL, the subject of veterinary fees came up. When this happens no one it seems ever mentions the modest nature of their bill! So to prevent more “vet bashing” and later embarrassment, I immediately revealed my profession.

The response was remarkably pleasing. We are apparently considered more skilled than doctors, because even though our patients cannot tell us what is wrong, we generally manage to work things out and make them better! This was undoubtedly a compliment and the conversation soon moved on.

Later, however, I reflected on the comment, how frequently it is made and how misguided those of us who deal with animals on a daily basis know it to be. After all, much of the communication between human beings is non-verbal and it is often when we cannot see and “read” people accurately that misunderstandings arise – no wonder folk fall out during telephone calls or after exchanges of e-mails or texts!

So if we eliminate the ability to talk to each other, using a language comprehensible to both parties, we nd ourselves in much the same position as the animals with which we live and work.

And as veterinary professionals, we are constantly aware of the amount of meaningful information we can actually glean from our patients and our pets, with the added advantage, I was told early in my career, that unlike humans they rarely lie to us!

OK, some individuals and breeds make more fuss over what seem like more minor issues than others. On the whole though, a genuine loss of appetite (not mere fussiness), increase in thirst, response to irritation or pain or withdrawal from normal activity usefully alert owners to medical problems and precipitate a clinic visit. We are then helped to reach a diagnosis by other more subtle signs, such as muscle tensing on palpation of joints or viscera.

The process is, of course, a combined enterprise between the animal’s carers and us. And, in order to do the best for any pet, we all need sensitivity, patience and good observational skills; plus, very importantly indeed, knowledge of the natural behaviour of the species involved – prey animals for example advertise illness and injury much less overtly than do their predators. 

In addition, however, we all recognise the importance of being able to put the information we glean together in the right way to avoid making mistakes or even missing something obvious.

Overlooking significant evidence 

This is perhaps the most critical issue when it comes to problems associated with the way companion animals behave. Looking back over many behaviour cases, it is sad to reflect how often pets were quite clearly communicating their emotional states, their need for better understanding or changed and improved circumstances.

Yet owners, despite being conscientious, caring and not at all stupid, were simply failing to comprehend what they were clearly “being told”. Had they been more aware and able to “join up the dots”, as it were, so they could respond appropriately, all involved, including the affected individual, other pets and people, would have been much better off. The clients would also have saved their fees!

Some examples have amusing aspects. The indoor rabbits that had systematically stripped all the wallpaper they could reach in their small terraced home, for instance. Despite this, their owners did not even mention such a significant sign of frustration that indicated a lack of knowledge and appropriate management, a contributory factor in the aggression with which they were struggling. Many cat owners also laugh at themselves when it is suggested they clear the tops of fridge-freezers and kitchen cupboards to provide an elevated retreat for their anxious, stressed or fearful felines.

Invariably these cats have been trying, repeatedly and often desperately, to access such junk-covered perches, quite openly indicating their needs and one potential solution to their problems, but being chastised for doing so – when there was really no reason at all for not making the areas available to them. 

Recognition can come too late 

Sadly, however, there are the other cases where fearful or poorly socialised pets have been frequently coerced into situations they obviously found profoundly distressing and which sometimes put the safety of people and/or other animals at serious risk.

One much-loved cat for instance retreated upstairs whenever visitors arrived. Then she was always taken to “join the throng” in the tiny sitting room, with all means of escape closed off, simply because of her owners’ mistaken belief that she should “learn to be sociable” and this was the way to do it.

Worse still was the noise-sensitive border collie twice-daily forced outside at rush hour for exercise by an owner, who lived in a very small at alongside one of the busiest roads in outer London.

The dog’s increasing reluctance and tendency to run away and hide when the lead was produced was put down to stubbornness until the day when he bit the man to whom he was otherwise closely bonded.

This poor animal had been trying in all the ways he knew how to communicate but been misunderstood by a novice owner, who initially turned for help to an “old school” dog trainer, a wasted opportunity that ultimately proved fatal for his likeable pet.

We must “look, listen and learn” 

Which brings us to a serious point. Behaviour problems undermine welfare and can cost animals their lives. We, owners and professionals, don’t need, as some people believe, to be Dr Dolittles to hear what our pets “have to say”.

We do, however, need to arm ourselves with knowledge and perfect the art of opening our eyes and engaging our brains.

Only then can we be as effective as our pets deserve in getting things right for them and making a dent in the distressingly high problem behaviour statistics.