Monday, March 05, 2012

Grandin shares her insights into animal behavior

Nona Nelson, The Happy Wag

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Before I heard it from Temple Grandin, I would never know that a chicken deprived of privacy in her egg-laying coop would be unhappy, even anxious.

Left exposed to do her most personal business, "â? she'll feel like she's in a hotel room without a door in a bad part of town," Grandin joked in her keynote speech to the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association's conference at the Hotel Roanoke on Feb. 24.

The 64-year-old professor from Colorado State University, sporting her trademark cowgirl shirt and tie (she was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 2010), held the attention of a ballroom full of veterinary health professionals and at least one curious pet lover for almost an hour in a lively discussion about animal behavior.

From large livestock to pocket-size pets, Grandin shared insights about behavior backed with observation, humor and science.

One tidbit: It turns out gerbils also share a chicken's desire for alone time. If your gerbil is constantly digging in his bedding, he's not unhappy with the wood shavings, he's trying to build shelter. You can save the poor little guy a lot of work and anxiety by adding a den to his pen.

Grandin, who holds a doctorate from the University of Illinois in animal science, has published four books and hundreds of articles, and tours the country talking about humane treatment of animals. At the Hotel Roanoke, she breezed through a slide show that presented science in a very accessible, even humorous way, and explained much about the way animals process information.

Grandin credits her own autism with helping her understand the way the brains in other mammals work.

"I think in pictures, not in words," she explained, and so do dogs and cats. Pets have a sensory-based memory ("the local tree is a like a coffee shop to a dog â? full of information") that guide their reactions to people, places and things. While they learn differently than humans, they do learn.

Keeping your pet calm, according to Grandin, is the best thing you can do for the safety and well-being for both you and the pet. Too many pets, she said, end up being euthanized over behavior problems.

Starting in the puppy stage (from kittens to foals, too) she recommended exposing pets to people, animals and other stimuli and try to make all new experiences calm and positive. Pets have memories like file folders, and often certain items or places can trigger a memory file to open. Once a pet has had a bad experience that triggers a fear response, it takes a lot of work to undo the damage.

"You can train an animal to close a file, but not to erase it," she said.

She suggested simple things, like taking a mat from home to the vet's office so the slippery stainless steel table won't be so scary to your pet. "Fear of falling is primal," she explained.

Our pets, she said, tend to lead a very sheltered life, and this can cause some behavior problems. The more they are socialized, the better their lives, and ours, will be.

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