Category Archives: Animals

How dogs could make children better readers

Gill Johnson, University of Nottingham

Issues around children learning to read are rarely out of the news. Which is hardly surprising – becoming a successful reader is of paramount importance in improving a child’s life chances. Nor is it surprising that reading creates a virtuous circle: the more you read the better you become. But what may come as a surprise is that reading to dogs is gaining popularity as a way of addressing concerns about children’s reading. The Conversation

There is a lot of research evidence indicating that children who read extensively have greater academic success. The UK Department for Education’s Reading for Pleasure report, published in 2012, highlights this widely established link.

Keith Stanovich, an internationally eminent US literacy scholar (now based in Canada) wrote a widely-cited paper in 1986, describing this virtuous circle as the “Matthew effect” (a reference to the observations made by Jesus in the New Testament about the economic propensity for the rich to become richer and the poor, poorer). A downward spiral impacts upon reading ability and then, according to Stanovich, on cognitive capability.

Underachievement in groups of children in the UK is recognised in international studies – and successive governments have sought to address the issues in a range of ways. Reading to dogs, so far, has not been among them, but it’s time to look at the strategy more seriously.

Many children naturally enjoy reading and need little encouragement, but if they are struggling their confidence can quickly diminish – and with it their motivation. This sets in motion the destructive cycle whereby reading ability fails to improve.

So how can dogs help?

A therapeutic presence

Reading to dogs is just that – encouraging children to read alongside a dog. The practice originated in the US in 1999 with the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) scheme and initiatives of this type now extend to a number of countries. In the UK, for example, the Bark and Read scheme supported by the Kennel Club is meeting with considerable enthusiasm.

The ideal combination?

The presence of dogs has a calming effect on many people – hence their use in Pets as Therapy schemes (PAT). Many primary schools are becoming increasingly pressurised environments and children (like adults) generally do not respond well to such pressure. A dog creates an environment that immediately feels more relaxed and welcoming. Reading can be a solitary activity, but can also be a pleasurable, shared social event. Children who are struggling to read benefit from the simple pleasure of reading to a loyal, loving listener.

Children who are struggling to read, for whatever reason, need to build confidence and rediscover a motivation for reading. A dog is a reassuring, uncritical audience who will not mind if mistakes are made. Children can read to the dog, uninterrupted; comments will not be made. Errors can be addressed in other contexts at other times. For more experienced or capable readers, they can experiment with intonation and “voices”, knowing that the dog will respond positively – and building fluency further develops comprehension in readers.

For children who are struggling, reconnecting with the pleasure of reading is very important. As Marylyn Jager-Adams,a literacy scholar, noted in a seminal review of beginner reading in the US: “If we want children to learn to read well, we must find a way to induce them to read lots.”

Reading to a dog can create a helpful balance, supporting literacy activities which may seem less appealing to a child. Children with dyslexia, for example, need focused support to develop their understanding of the alphabetic code (how speech sounds correspond to spelling choices). But this needs to be balanced with activities which support independent reading and social enjoyment or the child can become demotivated.

Creating a virtuous circle

Breaking a negative cycle will inevitably lead to the creation of a virtuous circle – and sharing a good book with a dog enables children to apply their reading skills in a positive and enjoyable way.

Research evidence in this area is rather limited, despite the growing popularity of the scheme. A 2016 systematic review of 48 studies – Children Reading to Dogs: A Systematic Review of the Literature by Hall, Gee and Mills – demonstrated some evidence for improvement in reading, but the evidence was not strong. There clearly is more work to do, but interest in reading to dogs appears to have grown through the evidence of case studies.

The example, often cited in the media, is that of Tony Nevett and his greyhound Danny. Tony and Danny’s involvement in a number of schools has been transformative, not only in terms of reading but also in promoting general well-being and positive behaviour among children with a diverse range of needs.

So, reading to dogs could offer many benefits. As with any approach or intervention, it is not a panacea – but set within a language-rich literacy environment, there appears to be little to lose and much to gain.

Gill Johnson, Assistant Professor in Education, University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is there really a link between owning a cat and mental illness?

Francesca Solmi, UCL and James Kirkbride, UCL

Over the past few years, cats have increasingly attracted media attention due to a number of scientific studies reporting that a Toxoplasma Gondii (T. Gondii) infection is linked with mental health issues, including schizophrenia, suicide and intermittent rage disorder. Since domestic cats are the primary hosts of T. Gondii – that is, they provide an environment within which this parasite can reproduce – it is often speculated that cat ownership may put people at increased risk of mental illness, by exposing them to it. The Conversation

However, only a handful of small studies have found evidence to support a link between owning a cat and psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia. And most of these investigations have serious limitations. For instance, they relied on small samples, did not specify how participants were selected, and did not appropriately account for the presence of missing data and alternative explanations. This can often lead to results that are born out of chance or are biased.

To tackle these limitations, we conducted a study using data from approximately 5,000 children who took part in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children between 1991 and 1992. Since then, these children and their families have been followed up to gather information on their health, as well as on their demographic, social and economic circumstances.

So, unlike previous studies, we were able to follow people over time, from birth to late adolescence, and address a number of the limitations of previous research, including controlling for alternative explanations (such as income, occupation, ethnicity, other pet ownership and over-crowding) and taking into account missing data.

T. Gondii is found in domestic cats.
Kateryna Kon/

We studied whether mothers who owned a cat while pregnant; when the child was four years old; and 10 years old, were more likely to have children who reported psychotic symptoms, such as paranoia or hallucinations, at age 13 and 18 years of age. Although most people who experience psychotic symptoms in adolescence will not develop psychotic disorders later in life, these symptoms often indicate an increased risk for such disorders and other mental illnesses, including depression.

So are cats bad for your mental health? Probably, not.

We found that children who were born and raised in households that included cats at any time period – that is, pregnancy, early and late childhood – were not at a higher risk of having psychotic symptoms when they were 13 or 18 years old. This finding in a large, representative sample did not change when we used statistical techniques to account for missing data and alternative explanations. This means that it is unlikely that our results are explained by chance or are biased.

While this finding is reassuring, there is evidence linking exposure to T. Gondii in pregnancy to a risk of miscarriage and stillbirth, or health problems in the baby. In our study, we could not directly measure exposure to T. Gondii, so we recommend that pregnant women should continue to avoid handling soiled cat litter and other sources of T. Gondii infection, such as raw or undercooked meats, or unwashed fruit and vegetables. That said, data from our study suggests that owning a cat during pregnancy or in early childhood does not pose a direct risk for offspring having psychotic symptoms later in life.

Francesca Solmi, Research Associate, UCL and James Kirkbride, Reader, UCL

Young African penguins are dying because they can’t find the fish they need

Katrin Ludynia, University of Cape Town and Richard Sherley, University of Exeter

When young African penguins leave their nests for the first time they do so alone, without any guidance from their parents. They need to use their instinct to follow cues in their environment to find food and stay alive in their first months at sea. Hard as that may have been in the past, today climate change and high fishing pressure have made it even more difficult. The Conversation

For penguins in South Africa and Namibia, abundant supplies of their favoured prey, such as sardine and anchovy, are no longer where the penguins expect to find them. This causes the young birds to fall into what is known as an ecological trap. This is when they follow the usual cues to feeding grounds only to find that the sources of food in these places is no longer available. This can be due to changes in stocks of particular foods due to over-fishing or underlying environmental change

African penguins are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as numbers along their entire range in South Africa and Namibia have dramatically decreased in the last century and trends currently don’t show any sign of reversing. In the last 50 years, the population has dropped by 80% and there are only about 23 000 breeding pairs in the wild.

In our new study, we followed 54 juvenile penguins – penguins who have lost their down feathers and are now waterproof and ready to go to sea – on their initial journey along the southern African coast using satellite transmitters.

Dwindling fish stocks

The birds moved to areas of the ocean where sea temperatures are low and productivity – in the form of the phytoplankton microscopic food that is the base of many aquatic food webs – is high. To do so, they travelled large distances to areas such as St. Helena Bay along the West Coast of South Africa and Swakopmund in central Namibia. Both are historically known for their high fish abundance.

But large fish stocks no longer exist in these areas. This is because of the combined effects of the changing climate and fishing pressure. Since the lower levels of the ecosystem have not been affected in the same way, the signals that the penguins would have always used to locate their prey are still intact.

For example the phytoplankton is still there and is still preyed upon by zooplankton, microscopic animals drifting in the ocean. But today, the fish that would normally co-occur with their planktonic prey are scarce or absent.

Juvenile penguins are “tricked” into selecting the now poor habitat and fall into this large-scale ecological trap. This previously unnoticed ecosystem-wide phenomena explains the low survival chances of this endangered species, especially during its first year at sea. It contributes to the dramatic decline of the penguin population.

Modelling exercises in the current study showed that with sufficient food in these areas, the African penguin population on the West Coast of South Africa would be twice the size it is now. There would be around 5,000 pairs at Dassen and Robben Islands, instead of only around 2,500. Only juvenile penguins from the Eastern Cape colonies, located in Algoa Bay, foraged in an area which provides sufficient food, the Agulhas Bank.

In the last 50 years, the Africa penguin population has dropped significantly.

Escaping the trap?

Several conservation measures are being taken to halt the decline of the African penguin and a few could help get the penguins out of this ecological trap. Efforts to hand-raise chicks and create new penguin colonies may help bolster the population and build resilience against future change. The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, South Africa’s largest rehabilitation centre, hand-rears several hundred chicks each year. This happens after they are abandoned in the colonies because their parents get oiled or injured, or simply cannot find enough food to raise them during the breeding season.

Once these birds reach fledgling age, they are released back into the wild. Fourteen of the penguins in this study were hand-reared and the results show that these chicks behave in the same way as counterparts raised by their parents. Unfortunately, these penguins also travel into areas with low food availability.

The chicks raised at the centre behave naturally once back in the wild and could be used as part of efforts to create new penguin colonies by releasing them at designated areas where they could found new colonies in closer proximity to the available food.

But a great deal more needs to be done to address the problem of the ecological trap. The study shows that large scale conservation measures – such as reduced fish quota or suspension of the fisheries once the fish population falls below critical ecological thresholds – are urgently needed to protect the endangered African penguin and other seabirds in the Benguela Current, a highly productive cold water system along the west coast of Southern Africa. These measures must go hand-in-hand with conservation initiatives that are in place already.

The ecological trap for African penguins was discovered by tracking juveniles. This is an age group about which very little is known in many seabird species. It highlights the importance of further studies on the survival strategies in the first year of particular seabirds’ life to understand the dynamics of species across their range.

Katrin Ludynia, Honorary Research Associate and Research Manager at SANCCOB, University of Cape Town and Richard Sherley, Research Fellow, Bristol Zoological Society and University of Exeter, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Animals know when they are being treated unfairly (and they don’t like it)

Claudia Wascher, Anglia Ruskin University

Humans beings appear to be hardwired to have a sense of fairness. This is puzzling from an evolutionary perspective, which you would have thought would mean we were predisposed to seek advantage for ourselves and our families wherever possible. But in fact a sense of fairness is important for humans to be able to help each other. Human cooperation is based on reciprocal altruism – we help people because they’ve either helped us in the past or they may help us in the future. The Conversation

This form of cooperation is only possible when individuals are able to keep track of other individuals’ efforts and payoffs – and a sense of fairness helps with this. But what about non-human animals? Is sense of fairness unique in differentiating humans from other animals or has it evolved in other non-human animals too?

There’s a way of testing for this in animals using an “inequity aversion task”. One test subject receives a reward for completing a task, while an experimental partner gets a “booby prize” – something they don’t particularly like. You’d imagine that individual animals that have a strong sense of fair play would either stop taking part in the experiment or refuse the treat.

One of the first species that was tested for inequity aversion were brown capuchin monkeys. In a task where the monkeys had to exchange a token for a treat, one individual was given a piece of cucumber in exchange for a token, whereas a model individual – another monkey not the focus of the experiment – in an adjacent cage got a grape for the same action. Capuchin monkeys prefer grapes to cucumbers – and the individual receiving the cucumber soon started to “protest” by throwing the unloved vegetable back at the experimenter.

Capuchin monkeys also showed an awareness of what’s fair.
orangecrush, Shutterstock

The capuchin monkeys were also well aware of unfairness in the amount of effort they had to expend to receive a reward. When they had to “work” for a reward – and could see that their experimental partner received the reward as a “gift”, they stopped participating.

A number of other primate species, including chimpanzees, rhesus macaques and long-tailed macaques, have been shown to express some form of behavioural responses to inequity. Apart from primates, two further highly social mammalian species, dogs and rats, have also been shown to be sensitive to unfairness.

Bird brains

But what about non mammalian species? In recent years, the family of corvids has become one of the prime models when it comes to studying cognition in birds. Corvids are a large family of more than 120 species – including ravens, crows, magpies and jays. Corvids are highly social and have flexible social systems. Adult ravens for example live in territorial pairs, whereas jackdaws live in large community groups. In some species, such as the carrion crow, sociability depends on the environment – they might breed in male-female pairs in some environments as well as cooperative groups in others.

Various forms of naturally occurring cooperation can be observed in different corvid species. They help each other in aggressive encounters and share resources such as food or information about predators. So, given the extent to which corvids have been seen to cooperate in the wild, we expected them to have a sense of fairness and unfairness.

We decided to put them to the same test as the primates. The test subjects were four common ravens and six carrion crows. The birds received a piece of cheese as their reward (they like cheese) and a piece of grape as the booby prize. In one experiment, both individuals received the same food reward for exchanging a token with a human experimenter, while in another, one bird received only grapes for exchanging, whereas the other was given cheese. We also tried what’s called an “effort control” experiment in which the test subject had to exchange its token either for a piece of cheese or a piece of grape while the other bird was given the same reward, but got it as a gift and did not have to exchange for it.

In the “inequity” condition the subject crow – the bird that was being unfairly treated – stopped taking the lesser reward. In the “effort control” they stopped exchanging their token for the reward when they saw the other bird getting its reward for no effort. In both cases they could see how they were being treated unfairly and decided not to cooperate.

So in this respect, corvids are like some mammals – and a high complexity and flexibility in cooperation may have driven the evolution of this awareness of what is fair and what isn’t. The fact that inequity aversion is present not only in a number of primate species but also corvids suggests that this idea of fairness and cooperation is something that cooperative species have got in common which has enabled them to evolve sociability.

Claudia Wascher will be giving a talk: Unfairness ruffles crows’ feathers as part of the Cambridge Science Festival from March 13 to 26.

Claudia Wascher, Lecturer in Animal and Environmental Biology, Anglia Ruskin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Could the mystery of the meow be solved by a new talking cat collar?

Imagine you’re a cat, and, every time you meowed, the loud voice of a snooty-sounding British gentleman kindly informed your human guardian of your every thought and feeling (well, the thoughts and feelings you had before you were terrified by the sound of the voice).

A new product called the Catterbox – the world’s first talking cat collar – purports to do just that, using Bluetooth technology, a microphone and a speaker to capture a cat’s meow and translate it into an English-speaking human voice.

An ad for the Catterbox, which claims to be the world’s first ‘talking’ cat collar.

It’s not a joke; nor is it the first time a company has tried to use technology to translate cat meows for humans. A few years ago, the Meowlingual promised to interpret feline vocalization and expressions, but it didn’t exactly fly off the shelves or revolutionize our relationships with cats.

Still, the fact that these devices exist speak to the obsession humans seem to have with figuring out what their cats are thinking and feeling. Cats have a reputation for being hard to read – their mind is a “black box” – and some animal scientists have suggested that cats are just too challenging to even study.

But while a talking cat collar isn’t likely to solve the mystery of the meow, scientists have already discovered a few helpful things about human-cat communication and cats’ environmental needs.

A 20,000-year head start

Domestication of both dogs and cats has likely had a huge influence on their behavior, especially the way they interact with humans.

The coevolution of dogs and humans, however, can be traced back approximately 30,000 years, giving dogs a 20,000-year edge over cats in wiggling their way into human companionship.

Because cats have had a much shorter period of coevolution with humans than dogs, they’ve been subject to less selection for facial expressions that we translate in dogs as “easy to read” and “human-like.” For example, we see something as simple as “eyebrow raising” in dogs as a sign of sadness and vulnerability.

For this reason, many will either dismiss cats as inscrutable, or use venues such as LOLCats to imagine what cats’ thoughts might be (mostly disparaging toward humans, it appears).

But humans are actually pretty good at reading some aspects of cat communication. Cornell psychologist Nicholas Nicastro tested human perceptions of domestic cat vocalizations and compared them to those of the cat’s closest wild relative, the African wild cat.

Our pet cats have meows that are shorter and of a higher pitch than their wild cousins. Humans tended to rate domestic cat cries as more pleasant and less urgent, showing that humans can identify which meows are from domestic cats and which are from a closely related wild cat. Meanwhile, a 2009 study demonstrated that humans could discriminate an “urgent” purr (one made by a cat while soliciting food from its owner) from a nonurgent one.

Communication breakdown

Many cat owners already assign meaning to meows, depending on their context. When your cat woefully cries at 5 a.m., you might be certain he wants food. But what if it’s just petting? Or wants to go outside?

This is where the cat-human communication seems to break down. People know their cat wants something. But they don’t seem to know just what.

Yes, but what is it that you’re actually trying to say?
‘Cat’ via

Nicastro did another study that found people were just so-so at being able to assign meaning to a meow. Experimenters recorded cats when hungry (owner preparing food), in distress (in a car), irritated (being overhandled), affiliative (when the cat wanted attention) or when facing an obstacle (a closed door). Participants could classify the meows at a rate greater than chance, but their performance wasn’t great (just 34 percent correct).

A similar study in 2015 by Dr. Sarah Ellis showed that even when the cat belonged to the participant, only four out of 10 humans could correctly identify the context of the different meows. And no one performed better than random chance when classifying meows of unfamiliar cats.

This suggests a few possibilities: meows might all sound the same to humans; perhaps some sort of learning occurs when we live with a cat that allows us to be slightly better at recognizing their meows over those of unfamiliar cats; or we might rely very heavily on context – not just the meow – to tell us what our cat might be thinking.

I have to admit, I’m not one of those people who finds cats difficult to understand. I accept that all cats have different needs than I do – and those needs include mental and physical stimulation (such as vertical space and play with interactive toys), appropriate outlets for normal feline behaviors (such as multiple litter boxes and scratching posts) and positive interactions with people (but as research has shown, in order to be positive, the interaction almost always needs to happen on the cat’s terms).

My bet? Those “urgent” 5 a.m. meows most often come from cats who either have learned that meowing is the only way to get attention or are not having their environmental and social needs met. But providing for those needs is going to be a lot more effective than trying to get your cat to talk to you through a novelty collar.

In its press release for the Catterbox, Temptation Labs claimed the device will “inject more fun” into a cat’s and human’s relationship. I can’t imagine it will be much fun for cats (who have much more sensitive hearing than humans do) to be subjected to a loud sound near their ears every time they meow.

At best, the Catterbox is a sorry attempt at a humorous ad campaign to sell cat treats. At worst, we have a product that does nothing to help us actually understand cats.

Instead we have a cat collar that promotes anthropomorphism and will probably simultaneously terrify the cats that are wearing it.

Talk about a lack of understanding.

The Conversation

Mikel Delgado, Ph.D. Candidate in Psychology, University of California, Berkeley

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.