Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Animal Minds

An expert's look inside the search for intelligence in other species

By Kim Campbell Thornton

I recently flew to Mongolia for a 20-day expedition to the Gobi Desert, Hustai National Park and places in between. One of my companions on the 20-hour flight, plus the five days it took to drive to the Gobi from Ulaanbaatar, was ethologist Frans de Waal -- not in person, but in the form of his new book, "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" Looking at the science regarding the intelligence of apes, corvids (crows and ravens), dogs and more, primatologist de Waal, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, reviews the evidence for animal cognition.

There is plenty of it, but only recently has the idea of animal cognition been taken seriously. In the past, he writes, the dominant schools of thought argued that animals were either "stimulus-response machines out to obtain rewards and avoid punishment," or "robots genetically endowed with useful instincts."

De Waal is in favor of a third premise: Intelligence comes in different forms, with animal minds possessing a complexity that has long gone unrecognized. It has been within only the past two decades that researchers became bold enough, or curious enough, to move beyond the idea that animals could not have intentions, emotions or cognition. To credit them with such abilities was considered anthropomorphic, romantic or unscientific (and still is by some). In fact, he writes, the term "animal cognition" was considered an oxymoron until well into the 1980s.

If you live with a dog, cat, bird or other animal, you are probably rolling your eyes and thinking, "Of course animals have emotions and intelligence." And you would be correct. Their cognitive abilities might not be exactly the same as those of humans, but they are similar in any number of ways, or they simply take a different form that allows a particular animal to navigate his world in a way that would be impossible for humans.

While many of de Waal's examples focus on apes and corvids, dogs don't go unremarked upon. In Chapter 4, "Talk to Me," on communication, de Waal discusses the advantages of working with an animal "intentionally bred by our species to get along with us." Of course, he means the dog.

"Dogs eagerly pay attention to us and need little encouragement to work on the tasks that we present to them," he writes. "No wonder 'dognition' is an up-and-coming field."

He visits Emory colleague Gregory Berns to see dogs Eli and Callie demonstrate their prowess at sitting still in an MRI machine for brain imaging. Hand signals inform the dogs that a treat is on the way, allowing Berns to visualize activation of their pleasure center.

The finding?

The prospect of food lights up a dog's brain in the same way and location that anticipation of a bonus lights up the brain of a hedge fund manager.

De Waal's book is a fascinating peek into the minds of our fellow beings, whose cognitive abilities may be best described by naturalist Henry Beston: "In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."

For other new books that address animal intelligence, see Jennifer Ackerman's "The Genius of Birds"; Jonathan Balcombe's "What a Fish Knows"; and Bernd Heinrich's "One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives."


Blood donor cats

save lives

Q: Can cats get blood transfusions? Where does the blood come from? -- via Facebook

A: You bet! It's not at all unusual for cats who are sick or injured to receive a life-giving infusion of blood from a fellow feline donor. Blood transfusions have been available for pets for more than 30 years. They may be necessary for cats with anemia caused by blood-sucking parasites such as fleas; who have undergone trauma, such as being hit by a car, and have internal bleeding; or who have a disease that requires transfusions of plasma, which contains special proteins that help to protect the pancreas from stimulation by pancreatic enzymes. Transfusions save lives, serving as a bridge until cats can heal on their own.

Feline blood donors typically are tolerant of handling, but they may receive a mild sedative to help them mellow out during the blood draw. Each pet blood bank or veterinary hospital has its own standards, but generally donor cats are 1 to 8 years old, live strictly indoors, have no health problems and are up to date on their vaccinations. Females must not have given birth. Cats can donate every three months.

Cats have three different blood types: A (most common), B (seen in certain pedigreed cats) and AB (rarest). The cost of a blood transfusion varies depending on the locale and the amount of blood needed. A matched blood transfusion is a must to prevent a life-threatening reaction.

Just as with the human blood supply, there can sometimes be a shortage of blood products. Fortunately, there are commercial pet blood banks, or your veterinarian may have a donor cat or two "on staff." Donated blood -- in the form of whole blood, plasma or packed red cells -- is collected in sterile plastic bags and is stored and handled the same way as human blood. -- Dr. Marty Becker

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Sniffer dog is

in the money

-- Jagger, a canine currency detector dog, searches for unreported cash -- amounts higher than $10,000 must be declared -- at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Canada. In his nine and a half years on the job, the 10-year-old black Labrador retriever has uncovered a whopping $70 million with 13,000 alerts. His skillful nose has earned the Canadian government approximately $2.4 million in fines and penalties.

-- Pet lovers in central Illinois have a safety net if they must enter a nursing home or hospice or become ill and are unable to care for an elderly dog or cat. Hospice Hearts, founded in 2015, takes in senior cats and dogs (over the age of 8) whose owners can no longer care for them. Animals who in a traditional shelter might be considered unadoptable go into foster care until they can be placed, adopted or "hired" by a business to help relieve employee stress.

-- Studies by researchers at Kyoto University suggest that cats have a rudimentary understanding of physics and the principle of cause and effect, which combined with their keen sense of hearing allows them to predict where possible prey hides. Thirty domestic cats were videotaped while an experimenter shook a container. In some cases, this action went along with a rattling sound. In others, it did not, to simulate that the vessel was empty. After the shaking phase, the container was turned over, either with an object dropping down or not. The cats looked longer at the containers that were shaken together with a noise. This suggests that cats used a physical law to infer the existence (or absence) of objects based on whether they heard a rattle (or not). This helped them predict whether an object would appear (or not) once the container was overturned. Findings were published in the journal Animal Cognition. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.