Goats hanging out with horses. Mules nuzzling dogs. We love unusual animal friendships. What’s at the heart of them?
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
A video of an otter and a Bernese mountain dog playing in a yard has received more than 277,000 views online. Cats and dogs are frequently friends, despite the long-standing belief that they don’t get along. And many other animals form true friendships outside their own species, including cats and pigs, rabbits and dogs, and horses and goats.
The idea of animals developing friendships was once considered taboo by scientists, who considered it anthropomorphic -- the attribution of human behaviors to animals -- but with recent research demonstrating that animals can have long-term social relationships, it has become an acceptable term by academics.
People who live and work with animals probably wonder what took scientists so long. They frequently observe strong interspecies friendships, demonstrating the features of close relationships: positive interactions, touch, and gentle body contact such as social grooming or embracing.
Gambit, a golden retriever search-and-rescue dog, is friends with Edith, a mule. “Gambit is one of those goldens who doesn’t know a stranger, animal or human,” says owner and handler Susannah Charleson. “When he saw Edith was standing alone in a barnyard area one morning in April 2020, he stood with his nose pressed to the fence, petitioning to meet her, hoping to be met.”
Edith also appeared to be attracted to Gambit. She ambled over, and they nosed each other. “They stood there for a long moment, just communicating quietly,” Charleson says.
Now, whenever walks take Gambit by Edith’s place, the two have a regular connection ritual: a gentle, mutual sniff of ears and faces. “Every once in a while, (Edith will) nuzzle and nibble at the top of Gambit’s head. He holds still for this, plume tail swishing.”
Ivan, a Siberian cat, was best friends with a ferret named Bear until a move last year separated the two. They loved to wrestle, chase and play, says Ivan’s owner Ramona Marek.
Scout the horse has two companion goats, Rosie and Poppy. They are all bonded, says owner Lauren Brower, DVM, and call out for each other when separated.
Animals who form relationships outside of their own species usually do so at a very early age, before they realize, for instance, that they are supposed to be predator and prey or that they aren’t exactly alike. Very young mammals are often open to relationships with different kinds of animals, especially if the experience involves thermotactile sensation: a combination of warmth and softness. That may occur when they cuddle with each other as youngsters or if they are raised by an adult of another species.
It’s not unusual for animals to be nurturing toward the young of any species. Liz Palika’s English shepherds have helped her to raise countless foster kittens, who go off to their new homes unafraid of dogs because of the experience.
Animal cognition and behavior assistant professor J.J. Massen at Utrecht University in the Netherlands speculates that interspecies friendships may be a byproduct of friendships among members of the same species (known as conspecifics).
“I think the endocrine and cognitive mechanisms that govern friendships are not species-specific, but rely on individual recognition only,” Dr. Massen says. “If conspecifics are not available, or the ones available don’t really make a match, I think the system can be ‘hijacked’ for interspecific friendships, too. If reciprocal, they might not harm the animals and may even be beneficial for them from a psychological and fitness point of view.”
Evidence from recent research suggests that, like humans, animals choose their friends based on similarity in personality.
“Perhaps, like us, they are good at recognizing kindred spirits in whatever form they come,” says Charleson, Gambit’s owner.
What to know
Q: I’m interested in helping my local shelter by fostering pets. What should I know or consider before getting started?
A: Fostering is a wonderful way to help an animal prepare to become a great companion, but it takes dedication. Here’s what to consider.
Care, training and socialization take time. Bottle babies need round-the-clock care, while older animals need handling, training and socialization, as well as veterinary visits for spay/neuter surgery, heartworm treatment or dentals. Know how much time you can spare.
Foster pets may or may not be housetrained. If they aren’t, you may need to teach that skill, as well as be prepared to clean up accidents.
Part of fostering animals is teaching them how to be good family members. Be sure the whole family is prepared for this responsibility.
Your pets may have something to say about the presence of a foster pet. Take into account their age and personality before bringing a foster pet into your home. And be aware that your normally laid-back pet may respond by being possessive of your lap or forgetting housetraining.
Fostering isn’t free. The shelter or rescue group will likely cover veterinary expenses, but you may be responsible for things like food and cat litter. Be sure your budget can bear it.
Taking foster animals to adoption events, usually on weekends, is sometimes required. Be sure you have time to commit to that.
Fostering can be a long-term commitment. The length of time you have a foster animal in your home can range from several weeks to a few months.
Before working with an organization, check how well it is run. Clues include calls answered or returned promptly, coverage of veterinary care, regular contact to see how the animal is doing, and good-faith attempts to place the animal in a permanent home. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Study to look
at senior cats
-- A study by Carlo Siracusa, associate professor of clinical behavior medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, will look at how chronic inflammation affects cognition, behavior and overall health of senior cats. The study, awarded the Mark L. Morris Jr. Investigator Award by the Morris Animal Foundation, will look at 100 pet cats 7 years or older to check for signs of chronic inflammation as well as assess their behavior, living environment and cognitive abilities. “There is an increasing body of evidence that shows the immune system and inflammatory response have an influence on behavior, but we don't yet have enough data on cats," said Siracusa. "We want to investigate how physical health influences mental health, and vice versa.”
-- The bite of a tick can transmit disease to dogs and humans in as little as a few hours, so it’s essential to remove ticks carefully as soon as they are discovered. Use tweezers or a tick removal device to grasp them at the head and pull them straight out. Clean the bite area with soap and water, and keep an eye on your dog to make sure he doesn’t display signs of tick-borne pathogens such as fever, lethargy, appetite loss, enlarged lymph nodes or lameness. Talk to your veterinarian about appropriate tick preventives for your area.
-- Migrating birds have a molecule in their eyes that may allow them to “see” Earth’s magnetic field, enabling them to wing their way along migratory routes that might otherwise seem impossible for them to navigate. The light-sensitive molecule, known as a cryptochrome, may serve as a magnetic sensor that possibly works by giving the bird information about the direction of the magnetic field. The information, published last month in a study in the journal Nature, is another step toward solving the mystery of how birds navigate long distances. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.