Archive | February 2012

The Zoomies


We were just finishing our walk in Glen Canyon the other day when Lambie* took off at a dead run. At this point in the trail is a small preschool only accessible by foot. The school is separated from the walking trail by a natural ravine and a small bridge and I had taken the precaution of putting the bigger dogs on leashes so as to avoid any accidents. Lambie always stays pretty close and I had never even seen her run so I hadn’t even thought about putting a leash on her tiny 10lb frame. That turned out to be a bad move. She galloped in circles around the children and parents playing outside, changing direction on a dime, and avoiding me at all costs until she finally ran inside the building. By the time I caught up with her (after tying up the other dogs), she was in the arms of a teacher with a very stern look on her face. Apologizing profusely, I grabbed Lambie and sheepishly hurried away. The episode lasted just a few minutes but it seemed totally uncharacteristic of this sweet, obedient toy poodle’s personality. So what happened? Lambie got the zoomies.

The zoomies, or Frenetic Random Activity Periods (FRAP), are sudden bursts of energy in which a dog will take off running at top speed, spin in circles, and then collapse, exhausted. The zoomies happen most often in puppies but are totally common for adult dogs too. In some cases, the zoomies may indicate that your puppy or dog is not getting enough exercise and/or mental stimulation and has excess energy to burn. If your dog gets the zoomies constantly, you may want to add an extra walk to your day or try feeding him out of a Kong or similar toy to get his brain working.

There isn’t much you can do about the zoomies but wait them out. If your dog zooms around the same time every day, make sure he is in a safe place where he won’t hurt himself. Resist the urge to chase your dog, this may make him think that you are in on the game, too. If your dog has good recall, he may come when called or he may be so excited his mind is somewhere else. As your dog ages, the zoomies will decrease, so enjoy it while you can; you can’t help but admit that crazy eyed play is SUPER cute…


Uncontrollable urges

The dogs I foster go through a period of adjustment when they first arrive in my home. Many have been rescued from shelters where any previous housebreaking is easily undone by uncertain schedules and limited time outside their kennels. Ginny didn’t have this issue. In fact, she never once eliminated in the house…until last week.

This month I am taking an advanced canine behavior class at the Marin Humane Society which means a full ten hours away from the house. Luckily, my wonderful roommate has stepped up to help out. But last week, she went out to see a movie and returned to a large puddle of urine on the floor. She had been gone no more than 4-5 hours – a period of time that Ginny has had no trouble holding it for in the past. Two days later when I had to leave Ginny alone for about four hours, I purposely left the patio door closed so she had no access to the backyard. I needed to know if her accident had been a true accident or if it was the sign of something more serious. When I walked in to the living room, that puddle was right where my roommate had described it the other day. That evening, as we chatted about Ginny, she reminded me that I had been complaining that the dog had been waking me up barking and pawing at the patio door once, sometimes twice, each night to let her out. While she had done this on occasion in the past, it was a behavior that had escalated in the last week. I scheduled a visit to the vet for the next afternoon.

After checking the size and placement of her spleen and the pressure it might be placing on her bladder, Dr. Vega at Pets Unlimited suggested a couple of possible causes that would need blood and urinalysis to diagnose. In spayed female dogs of middle age a loosening of the “bladder sphincter” is common. Like in humans, this causes a female dog to be unable to control their bladder and have accidents. According to the ASPCA, incontinence is most common in female Cocker Spaniels, Springer Spaniels, Doberman Pinschers, and Old English Sheepdogs; but it can afflict any breed of mid to old age. Incontinence can be controlled with a daily medication that tightens the sphincter but it will be a daily presence for the rest of the dog’s life. Doggie diapers – belly bands – can also keep a dog from piddling all over the house. Other possible causes of incontinence or excessive or inappropriate elimination in dogs? A urinary tract or bladder infection, the onset of Cushing’s Disease, diabetes, or spinal injury.

The next afternoon we got a call that Ginny’s urine showed that she had a raging urinary tract infection. A ten-day course of antibiotics should knock out the infection and we will follow-up with the doctor in two weeks. Five days in, Ginny is back to normal and I get to sleep through the night again!


Dream state

Most dog owners (and cat owners too!) don’t need a blog entry to convince them that their pets dream. Rapid eye movement, twitching – these actions look exactly like a human in deep sleep. And they are. Structurally, dogs have similar brain structures to humans and, during sleep, they show changes in electrical activity in the hippocampus that mimic the changes that take place in our own brains while dreaming. Even animals with far more simple brains, like rats, have shown to have the same electro-activity during sleep as human beings in dream states.

On YouTube there are dozens of videos of quivering, paw moving, barking dogs that are fast asleep. So what are they dreaming about? Take this classic:

The dog appears to be chasing or running from something and, according to MIT scientists, he probably is. Dog dreams seem to be linked to activities in which the dog has engaged during the day. So, if you took your dog on a hike where he rolled around in a dead animal, his memory may have turned images from this event in to a dream sequence. If your dog got in a fight, these images might fill his dreams. My dearly departed Franny, a demand barker, would bark in her sleep, a noise that came out sounding high-pitched and underwater. Dr. Stanley Coren, an expert in psychology and dog intelligence, shares this story from a letter he received:

“Goober is a basenji, and like many basenjis he hates water and being bathed. As soon as my wife finishes bathing him he bolts out of the bathroom door, finds me, and tries to hide behind me or under me. So one day Goober was forced to be cleaned and underwent his ritual of hiding behind me. Later that night he was sleep running. He awoke with a start, and then bolted to my location to hide under my legs. This was very awkward as I was sitting on the toilet at the time. I believe that he was dreaming, and I believe that he was dreaming about having a bath. I believe this because he only engages in this behavior when a bath is involved.”

Compared to humans who dream approximately every 90 minutes, dogs are believed to dream more often for shorter periods of time depending on their size. Extra-large dogs like the Rhodesian Ridgeback might dream every 45 minutes for about five minutes at a time; a Chihuahua is more likely to dream every ten minutes for about 60-seconds at a time.

Though adorable, understanding the abilities of dogs, cats, and rats to dream may impact our understanding of animals as a whole. Coren, referencing Charles Darwin, points out that if you can prove that an animal dreams, you have proof that the animal has consciousness, a theory that has historically been heavily challenged by the scientific community. This means that, when your dog is hanging out with you on the couch, he may actually be thinking fully formed thoughts, rather than just existing. Is it possible that our dogs have complete inner lives and internal “monologues” just like humans?


Fascinating changes

I adopted my second cat Phoebe almost a year ago. Bringing a new cat in to the home is always stressful for the animal and I can only imagine how she felt coming in to mine, with the smell of multiple dogs and another cat everywhere. I followed the protocol of introducing two cats – keeping the Phoebe in a safe spot that Osito couldn’t reach for the first several days – but the relationship between the two of them was rocky from the start. Whereas Osito and his former roommate Bat got along pretty well, chasing each other down the hall and playing the “door game” trying to get each other’s paws from either side of a door, he quickly assumed a new role as head cat. He would bully Phoebe when she was eating or sauntering around the apartment. He wouldn’t let her up on the bed so she made herself a nest underneath it. Not surprisingly, Phoebe, though sweet as could be when approached, wasn’t interested in getting close to Osito’s humans.

Fast forward to three weeks ago. Phoebe spends a lot of time outside, presumably getting some exercise, but it was clear she had put on some weight. Since finding Osito, I had left a bowl of dry food out for him, rather than feeding him a set amount at mealtimes. This is a no-no in the kitty health world but, at the time, Bat was such a food monster that I felt if I left him only the amount of food he was supposed to eat, she would gobble it up instead. When Phoebe came in to our lives, I continued the practice, now setting out two separate bowls so they could eat at the same time if they wished. But newly fat Phoebe needed a change to help her shed the extra weight so I decided to switch the cats to mealtime feeding only. I left the food out if they didn’t finish what was in their bowl, but once gone, they received no more until the next mealtime.

Almost immediately, we noticed a change in Phoebe. All of a sudden she was approaching myself, my roommate, and visiting friends on the couch, purring and rubbing against us. Before this, I had seen Phoebe do this so infrequently, I could count the number of snuggle fests on two hands. But new Phoebe not only solicited our attention, she laid down to nap next to me and collapsed in to my side in a heap of soft fur.

So why the change? Because the only difference in her life is the way I feed her, and the change is a positive one (i.e., not a sign that might encourage me to take her to the vet), it is logical to assume that it is in fact the feeding that has changed her behavior to make her a sweeter and more loving cat. I suspect this follows a similar principle to one used in the dog world – Nothing In Life Is Free. With dogs that are controlling or overly excitable, trainers often recommend that the owner change the way a dog is fed (and receives other things it likes such as toys, going outside, etc.). Instead of just giving food and treats away, the dog must work for their meal every time. In other words, dog wants dinner, you make him sit and wait first. A more advanced version of this is never putting out a bowl of food but instead feeding a dog its kibble one nugget at a time in exchange for obedience like sit, stay, come, down, leave it, and so on. In this way, the dog comes to understand that good things do not happen unless the owner makes them happen; and the only way the owner will do so is if the dog is obedient and well-behaved.

In Phoebe;s case, I believe that by changing her access to food, she has realized that food doesn’t just grow on trees (or in her food bowl, at least), it comes from me and if she solicits my attention, purring and acting all cute, I may be more likely to feed her. And in the midst of that thought pattern, Phoebe realized something else: getting pet and snuggling is pretty great and worth doing whether she is hungry or not.

Unfortunately I will never know exactly what Phoebe is thinking; all I can do is theorize based on observations of her behavior. But either way I hope this new Phoebe is here to stay!

Signs of stress

Dogs are not humans in furry suits but they do seem to experience many of the same basic emotional responses that we do. Stress is a biggie in the dog world. Dogs can become stressed out by confronting any number of stimuli including new environments, new people, other dogs, car rides and loud noises. When stress occurs, cortisol levels rise and it takes a full 24 hours for them to return to normal, allowing your dog to fully relax.

In times of stress, signs are typically plainly written all over your dog’s body; you just have to learn the language! Common signs include:

– Lip licking or tongue flicks (small, quick movements of the tongue straight out of the mouth)

– Panting when your dog is not physically tired or overheated

– Yawning at times when your dog shouldn’t be tired

– A tucked or lowered tail

– A tense body

– Whining

If you notice your dog doing one of these things, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are experiencing stress. Your dog may lick its lips near meal times or when you are eating, for example. But when two or more of these actions is combined, your dog is probably stressed out. Here’s what it may look like:

If your dog is showing signs of stress, the best thing you can do is remove her from the situation. Since this isn’t always possible, try distracting her with treats (an extremely stressed out dog will not take treats so this can also help you to gauge the intensity of what your dog is experiencing), comforting her with long slow strokes, and reassuring her with slow, quiet words.

Urban coyote safety

Nevada and Bertie survey Glen Canyon from its rocky cliffs.

Some people are surprised to learn that cities like San Francisco are home to lots of wild animals. And it’s not just in the parks, either; one rainy night I awoke to a racoon mama and two babies splashing in a puddle on the rooftop behind my bedroom window. Still, natural, open spaces draw the most life to them. Glen Canyon, where I take a small gorup of dogs every morning, is a major, self-contained ecosystem in the middle of the city. Both predators and prey live in the wooded ravine and on the grassy hillsides. The largest of these, the coyote, is also the most dangerous and last week I was asked, “what would you do if you came upon a coyote?” I had an answer, but it didn’t feel complete, so I thought it was time to do a little research.

First, what NOT to do:

Do NOT turn your back on a coyote and, especially, don’t start running. This could trigger their prey drive and send them running after you.

Do NOT move towards the coyote, especially in a space where he might feel cornered, like against a cliff.

Do NOT try to distract the coyote by throwing it food.

So what should you do?

Make yourself BIG! Extend your arms, stand on your tip toes, fan out your jacket, lift your backpack over your head…use anything at your disposal to appear like a giant, threatening creature.

Yell. Loudly. If available, throw sticks and rocks at the coyote while you yell.

Slowly move away from the beast…very slowly, one step at a time.

Coyotes can be especially dangerous to dogs, though they typically will only attack small breeds, and even this is rare. There was one incident in Golden Gate Park in 2007, however, where (officials speculated) a large breeding pair possibly trying to protect their young attacked a 100lb Rhodesian Ridgeback. Generally coyotes are timid and will usually run the other direction within a few seconds of coming upon you. A greater concern is your dog becoming nervous at the smell or sight of a coyote and taking off in the opposite direction. A terrified dog may hide or run blindly until it is lost, making it difficult to recover.

In addition to Golden Gate Park and Glen Canyon, coyotes have been spotted in the Presidio over the last decade. You are most likely to come upon them in the early hours of the morning and at sunset so it may be a good idea to keep your dog on leash while you are in the danger zone.

%d bloggers like this: