Ignorance of animal behavior or body language is often a factor when interactions go wrong. Tips to keep things safe on both sides
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
The human desire to touch animals is almost irresistible. When children or adults see my dog Sparkles, almost always their first question is whether they can pet her. On the East African island of Zanzibar, I frequently found myself petting the friendly community cats, despite being aware of the risks of a bite or scratch or communicable condition from an unfamiliar animal. And when a guest asked if she could pet the lion dozing next to their vehicle, a Botswana guide was shocked to realize she wasn’t kidding.
But that powerful desire to touch or interact with animals can quickly turn tragic -- for people and animals. People visiting national parks have been gored by bison, mauled by moose and battered by bears. The “rescue” of a bison calf by visitors led to the animal’s euthanasia by park staff after the animal was rejected by the herd because of human interference. Two years ago in Oklahoma, a 4-year-old boy lost his arm after reaching into a pen to pet some puppies -- an act to which the adult dogs took exception.
In the case of wildlife, hazardous interactions typically occur because people are unfamiliar with the species they are approaching and don’t know what’s appropriate, says wildlife biologist Bill Given of Golden, Colorado. With pets, children may not have been taught not to run up or reach out to them without permission.
“A secondary problem is likely the social media drive for people to try and photograph themselves in unique ways to share with their followers,” Given says. “This is an especially bad combination when people ignorant of wildlife put themselves in the selfie position with animals.”
Whether you’re visiting a national park, on safari or simply taking a walk in your neighborhood, some simple, smart strategies can improve your viewing experience and keep you, your kids, wildlife and pets safe.
-- Keep your distance. “If you see an animal change behavior in response to you, you are possibly too close and should stop moving,” Given says.
-- Don’t approach animals head-on. Instead, move at their pace while staying parallel to them. “Moving slowly and often stopping for some time before ‘grazing’ closer is a way that animals are used to seeing other ‘safe’ animals moving,” Given says.
-- Be calm and quiet. Abrupt movements, running and high-pitched squeals attract an animal’s attention -- and not in a good way. Keeping noise levels low helps animals remain comfortable.
-- Never approach young animals. Whether we’re talking bear cubs or puppies, mother animals are fiercely protective. “We would never let a stranger harass one of our children,” says Galapagos naturalist guide Fabrizio Prado. “It is the same way in nature.” When protective animals attack, they can cause serious injury or death. In turn, they may be killed after being labeled “dangerous.”
-- Don’t force a natural close encounter. “It might be the first time for an animal to observe a human being,” Prado says. Let them decide whether to come closer or move away.
-- Don’t feed animals in the wild or leave out food in your yard. A common complaint on social media sites such as NextDoor and Facebook is neighbors who leave out food and water for coyotes or other wildlife, thinking they’re being kind. When animals learn to associate food with humans, they can lose their natural fear of people and begin to approach them aggressively;, they can become sick from inappropriate food; and they can add pets and livestock to their diet because they’re more likely to encounter them. Smaller wild animals can be attacked and injured or killed by domestic dogs and cats when they venture into a yard for food.
What about petting other people’s animals? Normalize letting animals come to you instead of reaching out your hand to them. (fearfreehappyhomes.com/the-new-new-on-greeting-a-dog-whether-youre-5-or-55) And accept being told no -- either verbally by the person with the animal or by animals themselves when they choose not to approach.
Behind the sniff
Q: Why do dogs sniff butts?
A: Dogs live for odors. Scent is the primary way they identify people, places and other animals, including other dogs. And the rear end is where a lot of those identifying scents are produced.
When dogs sniff beneath each other’s tails, they’re inhaling a pungent melange of odors -- primarily produced by microorganisms -- from preputial (male) and vaginal (female) glands, as well as from anal glands, which all dogs have. The odors vary from dog to dog.
What we’re not sure of is the kind of information that dogs get from sniffing each other, but we can hypothesize that it relates to such things as gender, reproductive status, health and diet. Because dogs are so diverse in size and shape, perhaps odor helps them not only to recognize individuals, but also to establish that they are indeed members of the same species.
Sniffing is more than just a polite canine greeting. It can tell you something about each dog’s social position. Typically, two dogs of equal status sniff each other at the same time, but lower ranking dogs wait to sniff until they themselves have been checked out by the other dog. Some dogs put the kibosh on sniffing action by sitting so another dog can’t access their hind end. If you notice that another dog doesn’t want to be sniffed, distract and redirect your dog by asking them to come, sit or perform some other known cue.
Some fascinating scent facts: 1. Nearly 1,100 olfactory receptor genes have been identified in the canine genome, each being sensitive to slightly different shapes in odor molecules. When odors trigger receptors, the brain compares the relative strength of all the signals received to characterize each odor. 2. Dogs start using their sense of smell even before birth. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
How to help
pets in Maui
-- The wildfire that destroyed the town of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui has displaced thousands of pets and other animals, and animal welfare groups need help to care for them all. Helping them can mean a better chance of reuniting them with their people. To lend a hand, you can donate to the Maui Humane Society (mauihumanesociety.org) to cover costs for food, shelter and veterinary care for animals with burns or lung damage from smoke inhalation. The MHS is also seeking people who can foster pets at their homes to relieve crowding. In addition, its website has information on how to post lost and found pet information.
-- Taking hair loss medication? Make sure your pet doesn’t ingest it, either by licking the cream or swallowing it in pill form (used for treating hypotension). Cats, in particular, are susceptible to minoxidil, found in medications like Rogaine, and it can be deadly to them. Even licking a small amount can result in poisoning and even death, according to veterinary toxicologist Renee Schmid at the Pet Poison Helpline. In cats, signs of poisoning include not eating, vomiting, lethargy, difficulty breathing, fluid in the lungs and chest, low blood pressure and cyanosis -- bluish discoloration of the gums. Signs in dogs include lethargy, vomiting, rapid heart rate and low blood pressure.
-- We thought we knew about all the rex cats, but there’s a relatively new one out there: the Tennessee rex (T-rex for short, of course). The term “rex” refers to wiry coats (and whiskers) with hairs that are crimped, hooked or bent. The T-rex has a curly, shiny coat, which appears to sparkle in sunlight, and can be longhaired or shorthaired. Whiskers are curly, too, and can be fragile. Other rex breeds are the Cornish, Devon and Selkirk rexes. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts. Veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker is founder of the Fear Free organization, co-founder of VetScoop.com and author of many best-selling pet care books. Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning journalist and author who has been writing about animals since 1985. Mikkel Becker is a behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/Kim.CampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.