Our aim is to provide humane education regarding environmental enrichment to enhance the life of all captive animals.
"Although the ancestors of today's hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, rats, mice, rabbits and chinchillas were wild animals, the "pocket" pets we keep in our homes today are captive-bred and completely dependent on human caretakers for food, care, company and protection. These small mammals merit the same status in pet society as their larger counterparts.
The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association's National Pet Owners Survey reveals that, as of 1998, one out of 25 households in the United States contained a small pet mammal, with rabbits the most common. As with any pet, the decision to own a hamster, guinea pig or other small mammal should be based on careful thought and knowledge, not whim or impulse - including the impulse to rescue. Some have relatively short life spans, while others can live as long as a dog or cat; they all require a lifelong commitment. Potential owners should consider whether their schedule allows enough time for routine care. They should also have their landlord's written permission to keep a pet and make sure that no family members are allergic.
Some of these little critters are nocturnal, meaning that they sleep during the day. This does not fit well with every household. Also, because they have many natural enemies, they are susceptible to stress, including noisy surroundings and the presence of larger household pets. Considerate owners may situate their exotic's cage in quiet locations and turn the radio dial to "easy listening." Some little guys enjoy early-evening activities, while others prefer to just curl up on their owner's lap to enjoy the Animal Planet network.
If children are part of the family, the age of the child is important in determining which exotic is suitable. In most cases, children under the age of seven are not recommended. With rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs, the combination can be dangerous. The most loving child may think these are "toy" animals who want to be held anytime and carried around. Just the opposite is true. All of them are fragile and can be squirmy in anybody's hands, especially a young child's. If accidentally dropped, they can suffer severe injuries or death, or may run away and hide. If lost, they cannot survive on their own. Outdoors, they are at the mercy of predators and other dangers.
Too often, when unfortunate accidents happen, a parent will buy a "replacement" pet for the child. Although well-intentioned, this is a lesson in irresponsibility. It is vital to remember that an adult should always supervise children as they interact with any of these small animals.
If there are other pets in the household, consideration must be given to the compatibility of the species. The safety of the small mammal should be a major concern, since he or she is often the natural prey of the other pets in the home. Some larger animals can learn to make friends with these little pets, but supervision is always necessary.
The dollar cost for most of these pint-sized pets is low - from $5.00 for a mouse or rat to $95.00 for a chinchilla. The cost of housing and accessories throughout these animals' lives is relatively low. But their value shouldn't be measured in dollars and cents. As with any pet, medical expenses should be anticipated in the event of injury or illness. Unfortunately, according to the National Pet Owners Survey, only two out of 10 owners consult a veterinarian for a small pet.
Books, the Internet, clubs and associations can provide you with what you need to know about the characteristics of each type of animal - varieties, behavior, equipment and space requirements, diet and medical problems. Fortunately, more and more information as well as specialized products are becoming available.
Pet stores, breeders and club-sponsored shows can help a potential owner learn how to tell if an animal is healthy. Not all pet stores or breeders are knowledgeable or ethical. Any place selling small mammals as pets should be clean, have proper cages with enough space for the number of animals they contain and keep the sexes separated (except for newborns). The animal should look healthy and be active. The salesperson or breeder should be willing and able to answer your questions. A great way to obtain one is from a shelter or a rescue organization.
Constant confinement can lead to stress, behavioral and health problems. Generally, signs of ill health include cloudy eyes, running eyes or nose, dirty or wet fur around the tail, unusual lethargy, bare patches of fur or any wounds. Routinely check your pet's ears and make sure his teeth are not overgrown. Follow diets prescribed for the specific animal and make sure there is fresh water daily. Hygiene is extremely important, so keep bowls, bedding and cage scrupulously clean.
It's easy to miss signs of trouble unless you handle your pet regularly. Regular gentle handling also will make it easier for your pet to be examined by a veterinarian and treated if needed. Never pick up any of these little guys by the tail. If you have to hold on, grasp the base, not the tip. Important to note: many can be spayed or neutered, and sometimes it is recommended. You can avoid heartache by finding a veterinarian who specializes in small mammals before an emergency arises.
The size of the enclosure for one or more of these furry friends should meet certain minimum requirements, but the bigger the better. Wire cages with solid flooring are best because they provide good ventilation and protection from sore feet. Locate the enclosure away from drafts, direct sunlight, radiators and air conditioning. Check that the air temperature is appropriate for your particular pet. It could mean the difference between life and death. Provide toys, untreated branches or wood, nest boxes, litterboxes, bedding, bowls and other appropriate accessories.
It is a misconception to think that just because these small animals don't need to be walked, they are maintenance-free. For starters, they need more supervision and cleaning of their environment. Is there enough space, as well as security from hazardous objects, predatory dogs and cats or humans too young to understand that these creatures are fragile? Safe, supervised exercise time outside their cages is a necessity. Pet-proof the room or rooms that will be used for exercise and playtime. Most of these pets will chew anything, including electrical cords! Seal up any holes, cracks or crevices that may tempt the curious. By investing time, energy and emotion in the care of the smallest pets, large dividends accrue. The virtues of little critters far exceed their size."
Jill Boriss, a former member of the ASPCA Publications department, has owned several hamsters.
Squeaking Out Against Small-Pet Profiling
Some people want what they believe are easy pets. "Shelf pet," "starter pet" and "pocket pet" are some of the labels that induce humans to acquire these animals. They are under the impression that hamsters, gerbils and other small mammals take up little space, provide amusement on command, require hardly any work and no veterinary care, are inexpensive, disposable and quickly replaceable. For a long time, small mammals have been the choice of research laboratories and school classrooms because of the so-called convenience of keeping them. On the other hand, many people, including those involved in animal welfare, debate the ethics of keeping animals either as experimental tools or educational objects, ignoring their need for environmental enrichment and social relationships. In addition to nutritious foods, ample space and good hygiene, small mammals, like larger pets, deserve active involvement with caretakers on a daily basis. -J.B.
Sprouts for pet birds? Absolutely! Sprouting is one of the best ways to ensure your bird gets some of the best nutrition available, made fresh by Mother Nature. There are so many advantages to sprouting, it's unbelievable.
Seeds have been supplied with all of the nutrients, energy and information needed to become a plant. Thus, when sprouted, seed has the nutritional value of the plant but in a more concentrated form. Considering the fact that parrots are much smaller than people, this packs a huge wallop of nourishment for your bird in the sprout's tiny package.
From Seed To Sprout
Seeds are shells containing the potential for a living plant; a wonderful invention in Mother Nature's cupboard. But Nature has allowed for many possibilities and installs defense mechanisms in numerous life forms including the little seed. Seeds not only contain the blueprints for plant building, they contain toxins, including enzyme inhibitors that protect them until tip-top conditions make themselves available to start the growth process. Seeds also contain fat, the fuel used to provide energy to produce a plant. Sprouting the seed gets rid of the toxins, burns unwanted fat and transforms this life form from one type of food into a more nutritious one.
Sprouts are essentially live bundles of pure nutrition, all in one tiny purse. They contain digestible energy, vitamins A, C, E, B, minerals, amino acids, proteins, antioxidants and phytochemicals, which have protective and disease preventative properties. Sprouts are also stuffed with digestive enzymes. These enzymes break down the food consumed, making it absorbable. If your pet bird eats and doesn't absorb the nutrition food contains, it doesn't do your parrot much good. The digestive enzymes in sprouts make the delivery of the nutrition more efficient. They are comparable to a "package delivery system" of the digestive world.
Research suggests that the period of time when there are the most enzymes in a sprout is between germination and seven days. It has been estimated that there could be up to 100 times more digestive enzymes in sprouts than in a full-grown plant, depending on the type of sprout.
Ann Brooks, Founder of Phoenix Landing, a nonprofit parrot welfare organization, is one of many sprouting advocates. "When you think of bird seed, think sprouts. These are live plants, packed with growing nutrition, the very food stuff of parrots in the wild. If there is one whole food you can encourage your parrot to eat, from budgies to macaws, this would be my choice!"
You don't have to be a horticulturist or even have a green thumb to succeed at sprouting. You can sprout easily, efficiently and safely using basic equipment that is readily available. You can purchase organic sprout mix and begin kitchen farming almost immediately.
What You'll Need
• Organic sprout mix
• Glass jars, bridal netting and a rubber band or a commercial sprouting kit
• Grapefruit seed extract (Sometimes called GSE, it is found at most health food stores and online. It has been found to have natural anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti bacterial agents.)
1) Place the desired amount of sprouting mix in a clean, glass canning jar and fill with water. Add a few drops of grapefruit seed extract. If you are using a sprouting kit, place the rubber netting over the mouth of the jar, fit the ring over the net, and screw the ring on to hold the netting in place. The ring has no top allowing the jar to breathe through the netting.
2) Rinse the sprout mix several times; drain and refill until the water rinses clear and clean. Refill the jar until it covers the mix with lukewarm water and let sit overnight.
3) The next morning, drain the water and rinse until the water is clear and rinses clean. Place the jar upside-down at a 45-degree angle in a dish rack or in a bowl so that any excess water drains and the mix is allowed to breathe. Make sure that air can circulate around the sprout mix.
4) At least two to three times a day, rinse the sprouts and place at a 45-degree angle to allow drainage. Keep the jar out of direct sunlight but in a place where it is at least room temperature.
Within two to three days, you will have little protrusions emerging from the seeds of your sprout mix. These are plants emerging out of the seed shell, alive and growing. The plants look like little tails that keep lengthening. You now have a sprout; a viable living plant packed with nutrition waiting to benefit your pet bird!
Sprouts are a living organism, so refrigerate them after they have begun sprouting in the same inverted position to drain excess water. Wet sprouts tend to decay.
Leslie Moran author of The Complete Guide to Successful Sprouting for Parrots and Everyone Else in the Family and host of moranscritterconnection.com, recommends the sniff test to determine if the sprouts are fresh. "Sprouts are living foods. They should look vibrant and alive, and smell fresh and inviting. If sprouts develop a 'slimy' appearance or their smell repels you, throw them out and begin again."
After you are done growing your sprouts, ensure they are dry to the touch, and store them inverted in their growing jar or in one of the special commercially available produce bags. After the final rinse, dry them by letting them stand inverted in the jar for a few hours or use a salad spinner to dry them before placing them in the storage bag.
Parrot Meets Sprout
Learning to sprout is one thing; getting your pet birds to eat them is another matter entirely. But there was probably a time when your pet birds weren't familiar with other foods until they tried them. You have many options for introducing your birds to fresh sprouts:
• Gradually introduce sprouts into your bird's favorite pellet mix.
• Add to scrambled eggs.
• Add to a cooked bean mash by adding just before serving.
• Add to a vegetable mix.
• Offer as treats or rewards
• Have your birds observe you eating sprouts.
• Hide them in some of the food you share with them.
• Chop finely and serve mixed in with your bird's regular wet food.
Most pet birds eagerly gobble them up, but if your pet bird is suspicious, just keep trying!
An Ongoing Cycle
Start the soaking process about two days before your first sprouts are eaten and, in a day or two, you will have a fresh crop ready to feed your pet birds. As you become more comfortable with this process, you can estimate the rhythm of your sprouting with the correct amount and have several cycles of fresh sprouts in an ongoing process. This ensures that fresh sprouts are available every day.
In line with the growing popularity of small mammals and pocket pets, the industry continues to showcase a large variety of fun, new accessories designed to appeal to the critters and to the 5 million U.S. households caring for at least one small animal.
“There is a strong consumer demand for products that will provide both exercise and enrichment for small animals,” said Paul Demas project manager for Penn-Plax Inc. in Hauppauge, N.Y. “This market has simply caught up to provide a similar level of pet care that is considered standard for cats and dogs.
“The Xercise Wheels have a wire mesh running surface to ensure safety for small toes and tails, and it’s chew proof,” reported Heather Cappel, Ware’s creative coordinator. “A center hub ball bearing provides completely silent operation.” “I always recommend that retailers encourage customers to keep a variety of exercise and enrichment accessories because exchanging them regularly is another way to enrich a pet’s life,” Demas continued.
All About Exercise
Sixteen percent of small animal owners purchased an exercise wheel in 2010, according to the American Pet Products Association 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey—an opportunity not lost on Ware Manufacturing Inc. of Phoenix. The company recently introduced two new workout products: the Stainless Steel Xercise Wheel and the silent spinning Flying Saucer.
The small, 5-inch wheel is designed for hamsters, juvenile gerbils and mice. The medium-size wheel, 8.5 inches in diameter, entertains adult hamsters, gerbils and pet rats. Both wheels can stand alone or attach to a cage wire.
“I think they are great,” noted Sue Sarkinen, manager of Falmouth Pet Center in Falmouth, Mass. “They are a really good size and they don’t squeak, which is a question our customers always ask.
“The Flying Saucer is a safe alternative to the traditional running wheel,” Sarkinen continued. “I like the way it’s angled making it easy for pets to climb on and off.”
Both products are recent additions to the shelves at Falmouth Pet Center.
“It’s important for store associates to make customers aware of what’s new in the marketplace,” Sarkinen advised. “But when it comes to enrichment for the pet, there’s no question that exercise wheels are our top seller.”
Wheels are without doubt our top-selling accessories, too, agreed David Rosenberg, manager of Beverly’s Pet Center in Pembroke Pines, Fla.
“All shapes and sizes sell well,” Rosenberg said. “So do free-rolling balls such as the selection from Super Pet that includes ones that glow in the dark and those fun designs such as the car and the new helicopter.”
Grooming Accessories and Potties
Ware also has launched two essential grooming accessories for small pets. Chinchilla Bath, a covered enclosure, includes a free sample of natural bath powder formulated to support a healthy coat. The two-piece design is easy to take apart for cleaning and is made from stain- and odor-resistant plastic, the company reported.
The Critter Potty and Dustbath Kit is sized for hamsters, dwarf hamsters and gerbils, and is designed to be used as either a dust bath or as a potty.
“Our customers are always looking for ideas for easy cage maintenance, and litter pans are an excellent choice to keep a cage clean and odor-free,” Sarkinen said. “Tall-sided litterboxes have the obvious plus of containing the litter better, and those that attach to the cage also help to keep the pet’s toilet area confined to a specific place in the cage.”
Hammocks and Sleepers
Perhaps the largest selection of new accessories on the market is in the sleeping and housing department. The choices include everything from blankets and cozy cubes to hammocks and hide-and-seek tunnels.
“Children definitely influence their parents’ buying decisions when it comes to such accessories,” said Britt Ahern, the store’s manager. “Often they will request a plastic igloo, such as those sold by Super Pet, and coordinate it with colored bedding. We also sell a fair amount of hammocks. Although the ones we stock are marketed for ferrets, I see no reason why a guinea pig wouldn’t enjoy such an accessory, too.”Family-owned Weber.
New from Rolf C. Hagen (USA) Corp. of Mansfield, Mass., is a line called Living World Tents and Tunnels. Geared for a variety of small animals—from hamsters, mice and gerbils to guinea pigs and rabbits—the tents offer companion pets a safe, secure and cozy hideout, according to the company. The products come in three color-coordinated sizes and can double as a playroom.
“They can be set up in an indoor or outdoor habitat,” said Abby Fournier, a Hagen spokesperson. “The tunnels are long, skinny polyester fabric tubes that add a new dimension to the pet’s habitat by extending space for play and exploration. They have openings at both ends and the center and attach to a tent with Velcro straps.
“They are a great add-on,” she continued, “as a crinkly material inside the tunnel provides added amusement and an enticement to play.”
The overall accessories concept has Ahern’s support.
“There’s no question that’s its becoming very popular to customize a small pet’s habitat,” she noted. “And because kids themselves love tunnels, they are popular accessories for all small pets, too.”
When it comes to sleepers, Midwest Homes for Pets of Muncie, Ind., reported it makes a luxury sleeper set specifically for ferrets and chinchillas. Included are two cushioned fleece shelf inserts, a plush hammock and a sisal scratcher.
“The hammocks adjust to varying lengths and the soft faux print fabric is designed to tone in with popular home interior colors,” said Jill Lockhart, marketing manager for the company. “All the accessories also are machine-washable for easy consumer care.”
Edible accessories, such the Ecotrition Snak Shak activity logs, houses and treat stuffers from 8 in 1 Products of Hauppauge, N.Y., remain popular with small animal owners, Beverly’s Pet Center”s Rosenberg reported. The accessories are solid performers, he noted, because they are multifunctional, offering small pets a hideout as well as something to gnaw, improving dental health at the same time.
“The bottom line is customers are beginning to realize that there is a huge variety of accessories available to enrich their pet’s life, and they are purchasing accordingly,” he said.
Even though Webers Pet Supermarket offers a wide range of product choices, Ahern often special orders a particular accessory that a customer may have read about or seen elsewhere.
“We take advice from our customers, listening to their wants and needs,” she noted. “Sometimes such items become a permanent addition to the selection on our shelves.”
The song of the zebra finch is a pretty simple one, and not particularly tuneful, but it can tell us a surprising amount about how brains work and preserve memories.
"One of the biggest hurdles in stem cell research now is directing new cells to go only to the site where you want them to go; it's like herding cats almost," said John Kirn, a Wesleyan University neuroscientist who has studied bird brains since the 1980s.
Birds can create new brain cells through most of their brains, while the creation of new neurons, known as neurogenesis, can occur in only a few regions of a mammal's brain. Better understanding of how neurogenesis happens in birds' brains, Kirn said, could lead to medical breakthroughs for humans.
"If we can understand how they manage to do this on the molecular level, it might give us some insights that we can use," he said, adding that stem therapy is one area that could benefit.
"There's something special about the bird brain that might be important in how we can create therapies for human brain damage," he said.
Kirn recently co-authored a study on neurogenesis in the zebra finch. The study, published in the May issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, could influence research into neurodegenerative illnesses in humans,includingAlzheimer's andParkinson's disease.
Typically, the song of a zebra finch will gradually degrade if it loses its hearing. But the researchers found that new neurons that developed in zebra finch brains helped the birds retain their song even after they were surgically deafened.
"It's completely counterintuitive to what everyone thinks neurogenesis is, which is to provide the flexibility for change and to learn new things," Kirn said. "And this is perhaps an example of the opposite of that. New neurons, in this case at least, are designed to preserve function."
To arrive at this insight, the research team studied a group of zebra finches, recorded their songs, injected the birds with a biomarker that would highlight new neurons, and then deafened half the birds. After 30 days, they analyzed the songs of the deafened birds to see which ones best preserved their songs. "We have some really sophisticated software for measuring all sorts of acoustic parameters," Kirn said.
The birds were then killed and their brains examined to see which birds had the most neurons. One of the scientists' predictions was shot down immediately.
"There's a lot of evidence that certain kinds of experience including social enrichment, can augment the number of neurons," Kirn said, adding that the researchers thought the lack of hearing would have the opposite effect. "We thought that the hearing birds would have more new neurons than deaf birds, but there was no difference."
But when the researchers looked at the brains of the deafened birds, he said, "that's when things got interesting."
"We found that the more new neurons a bird had, the longer it preserved the song after it was deafened," he said.
This has some implications for the brains of other species — including humans — and about the possible causes and even treatment of neurodegenerative disorders.
"On the very abstract scale, it suggests the possibility that in some brain regions, it might be possible to preserve information by adding new cells," Kirn said. "If [human patients are] losing cognitive function, if they're losing memories, this may be a way to not just enable you to learn new information, but actually preserve old information."
The link between the brains of birds and humans is indirect, Kirn said, but "not trivial." For instance, it was generally believed that most animals — including humans — could not produce new neurons later in life. By the 1990s, though, the idea was well-accepted that the production of new neurons did occur in certain animals — thanks largely to research on birds. Eventually, scientists accepted that it happened in humans as well, though only in certain parts of the brain.
Fernando Nottebohm, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York City and a mentor of Kirn's, was among the first to prove that neurogenesis occurs in birds. His study of bird brains grew out of an interest in figuring out how humans learn to vocalize.
"Some birds learn their songs much the way that people learn the sounds of speech," he said. And bird brains are a lot easier to study than the human brain. "We know much less about what goes on in the human than in the bird brain."
Kirn studies the zebra finch almost exclusively, although he did a brief stint concentrating on the canary. Unlike the canary, which learns a new song each year, the zebra finch has a limited repertoire. It learns one song in its first 90 days of life — made of four to eight notes "in very specific order and they don't vary at all" — and then sings it for the rest of its life.
Nottebohm studies both. He said they each have their advantages as study subjects. But, aesthetically, the more tuneful canary wins, hands down.
"Zebra finches have a squawky little song," Nottebohm said. "They sound like a mechanical cat."
The term stereotypy describes a sequence of behaviors that’s repeated over and over with no apparent function. Stereotypies occur in all types of animals who live in the care of people. Because stereotypies become increasingly fixed—the behavior sequences all begin to look exactly alike—and because they take up more and more of an animal’s time, they can interfere with other aspects of an animal’s life.
Without treatment or management, stereotypies in horses can lead to health problems, damage to the stable area and a great deal of distress for the horse’s guardian. Most equine stereotypies develop when horses are stabled or kept where they can’t interact socially on a regular basis with other horses or don’t get enough exercise or grazing opportunities. However, studies show that horses sometimes develop stereotypies even when they live in a pasture with other horses. Also, once a horse develops a stereotypy—for whatever reason—she will continue to do it even after the original problem has been dealt with. The behavior is particularly likely to resurface if the horse is stressed—even in a small way, such as having to wait an extra few minutes for a meal.
Equine stereotypies are categorized by a horse’s actions. The following is a short list by category:
Cribbing - Horses who crib place their upper teeth on a stationary object—such as the feed bin, their stall door or a fence board—and then arch their necks, pull a big gulp of air into their upper throat and abruptly release the air with a grunt. Approximately 4% of adult horses crib. Wind-sucking is similar to cribbing, but the horse doesn’t use a stationary object to steady herself when she takes the air back into her throat.
Wood-Chewing - Horses who chew wood nibble on any available wood surface. Many people confuse wood-chewing with cribbing—probably because both cause damage to the horse’s stall—but horses who wood-chew don’t grab the wood with their teeth, pull back and grunt as do horses who crib. Approximately 12% of adult horses wood-chew.
Weaving - Horses who weave rock back and forth against or in front of their stall doors or stall walls. If prevented from weaving against the stall door, they’ll weave wherever they are standing. Approximately 3% of adult horses weave.
Head-Bobbing - Horses who head-bob stand relatively still and bob their heads up and down repeatedly.
Head-Weaving - Horses who head-weave stand still and repeatedly swing their heads from side to side. Similar to head-bobbing and head-weaving are head-shaking and head-nodding. Shaking and nodding can develop because of inadequate stimulation, but they can also be the result of improper bit fit or other problems associated with the horse’s mouth, or flying insects around the horse’s face.
Stallwalking or Circling - Stallwalking horses usually pace back and forth close to the front of their stalls, although some circle continuously around the entire stall. Approximately 2% of adult horses stallwalk.
Self-Biting - Self-biting, sometimes referred to as “flank-biting,” describes repeated biting by horses at their flanks, legs or tail, or at the sides of their body and their lower shoulder blade area. Horses are very flexible and can bite at flies and other pests, of course, but horses who self-bite do so over and over when there is nothing touching their skin.
Wall-Kicking - Wall-kicking is common in horses, particularly at feeding times, but this behavior can develop into a stereotypy that occurs in the absence of specific triggers.
Comparing Stereotypies to Other Types of Behavior
Certain characteristics are associated, sometimes mistakenly, with stereotypical behavior. The following sections look at some facts and assumptions about these characteristics.
Horses with Stereotypies Are Persistent
Studies suggest that, compared to horses without stereotypies, horses with stereotypies have less self control and are more likely to persist in doing the same thing even when it doesn’t get them what they want. Studies also show they might have more trouble than other horses learning new things, but this is usually because they persist with an old response rather than trying something new.
Stereotypies Might Be an Addiction
Some horse stereotypies, particularly cribbing, cause a release of endorphins, the brain’s natural opiate. The release of endorphins is the body’s way of reducing pain, but endorphins can also cause a general feeling of well-being. This release of endorphins may maintain cribbing behavior with a horse similar to how an addiction is maintained in a person.
Are Stereotypies a Vice?
Some people refer to horse stereotypies as “stable vices.” However, most experts discourage the use of the term vice because it implies that a horse is being unruly or has some diabolical intent for engaging in the behavior.
Are Stereotypies an Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior?
Stereotypies are also often referred to as obsessive-compulsive behavior. Referring to stereotypies in horses as an obsessive-compulsive behavior also is not supported by some experts. This hesitancy is based on the fact that, in humans, obsessive-compulsive disorder is a diagnosis that suggests a cognitive component—particularly with regard to obsession—a component that can’t be assumed when assessing equine stereotypies. Labeling equine stereotypies as obsessive-compulsive implies that they all share a common cause and will benefit from the same treatment, which is not the case.
Given the opportunity, horses will graze almost continually. Pastured horses spend about 8 to 12 hours a day grazing. Most scientists believe horses require this amount of grazing time not to satisfy nutritional needs—something that can be achieved through grain supplements—but to satisfy their behavioral needs. Unfortunately, stabled horses can’t be provided continuous daily grazing time, either for management reasons or because it isn’t practical or safe to do so. In the usual stable situation, where horses are given a morning and evening feeding of hay and grain, stabled horses spend approximately 15% of their time eating. This drastic difference between their natural behavior and their stabled behavior is thought to be very stressful for horses and one reason for the development of stereotypies.
Limited Social Exposure to Other Horses
Horses are a social species, and a horse’s natural desire to be with other horses is very strong. Studies show that horses who have limited social contact with other horses, especially limited visual contact, engage in more stereotypies than horses who socialize regularly with other horses.
As might be expected, horses with high energy levels, such as thoroughbreds and warm-blood breeds, engage in stereotypies more than other breeds of horses. It has been estimated that as many as 10% of racing thoroughbreds exhibit stereotypies, and most stereotypies remain when a horse is taken in as a companion following her racing career.
Racing thoroughbreds are weaned relatively early in their lives, and some experts think the stress of early weaning might contribute to the development of stereotypies. However, one study of thoroughbred horses in the United Kingdom suggests cribbing might be influenced not by early weaning, but by the feed the foals eat. This study found that some foals began cribbing at the age of 20 weeks while they were still out in the pasture with their dams. These foals all had access to their dams’ concentrate feeds. Many experts now believe the high-concentrate foods contributed to the cribbing rather than the early weaning. High-concentrate feed can increase stomach acid, and cribbing might somehow reduce this acid.
Scientists who observe stabled horses during the day find that horses engage in stereotypies more often in the afternoon than in the morning. In one study, horses received less hay in the afternoon meal, and this finding might indicate that reduced fiber contributes to stereotypies. However, fiber content versus amount of time grazing was not evaluated.
Horse owners have long noticed that some families of horses are more prone to developing stereotypies than others. Recent studies in the United Kingdom of captive Przewalski horses support this observation, because although all the horses had the same care, some families of Przewalski horses had more stereotypies than others. However, it’s important to note that genetics don’t cause stereotypies, they simply increase the likelihood that certain stressors will produce stereotypies in certain families of horses.
Frustration and stress are the two factors most likely to produce stereotypies in horses. Studies show that, in general, horses with stereotypies have higher levels of stress hormones than their stable mates, even when they aren’t practicing their stereotypy. Some experts suggest stereotypies might simply reflect overall frustration caused by such things as training and riding styles that are confusing for the horse. But most experts agree that the frustration is related to the horse’s feeding, social and leisure-time activities. In an evaluation to determine whether increasing the number of meals a horse eats might decrease stereotypies, half of the horses in a large stable were fed their normal ration of concentrate divided between two, four or six equally sized meals while the other horses continued to eat two meals per day. Oral stereotypies such as cribbing, wind-sucking and wood-chewing decreased as the number of meals increased, but weaving and nodding prior to feeding increased. At the same time, the horses who weren’t given more meals also showed increased weaving and nodding and an increase in oral stereotypies as their stable buddies received their extra meals. This tells us that frustration is a key trigger for stereotypies.
Consider Other Possible Causes of Your Horse’s Behavior
Recent studies have found that some headshaking in horses is actually induced by bright light. The disorder is likely similar to photic sneezing in people (sun sneezing) and is more common in the spring than during other times of the year. Light—and sometimes sharp sounds as well—appear to over-stimulate the cranial nerve responsible for sensation in the face, resulting in the horse experiencing an uncomfortable stinging or pricking sensation in her nasal cavities.
The photic headshake is a relatively abrupt and violent toss, whereas stereotypic headshaking is rhythmic. Unlike stereotypic headshaking, photic headshaking generally worsens during work and can occur while the horse is trotting or even cantering, and it will stop abruptly when the horse gets back to the darkened barn. Covering their eyes will also stop the shaking. Photic headshaking is also usually accompanied by snorting and attempts by the horse to scratch her head on anything handy, including her foreleg or even the ground.
Injury or Medical Condition
Horses can engage in repetitive behavior or produce unusual movements when they are in pain, or as the result of neurological disorders. If your horse has no history of stereotypic performances and suddenly begins to do things such as head-bobbing, self-biting, foot-stomping or other behaviors that might indicate distress, have your veterinarian come out to your barn to rule out medical causes.
What to Do About Your Horse’s Stereotypic Behavior
Different stereotypies require different changes in a horse’s care to manage. However, as suggested by the causes listed earlier, you can take some general precautions to reduce your horse’s stereotypies:
Physical Management of Oral Stereotypies and Horse Welfare
Although treatment of any stereotypy begins with providing your horse adequate exercise, foraging opportunities and contact with other horses, management options are available to prevent horses from engaging in oral stereotypies. For instance, wooden fences coated with creosote can deter chewing, cribbing and sucking. An electric wire on the fence will prevent access to the wood. Cribbing and sucking wind can be prevented in some horses through the use of a “cribbing collar.” However, it is important to realize that these practices simply manage (avoid or prevent) the behavior. They do not remove the underlying motivation, and while they might decrease stress in horse guardians, they have been found to increase stress in horses. Studies have shown that stress hormones are highest in horses that perform stereotypies just before they begin to do the stereotypic behavior and lowest just after they’ve done the behavior. This tells us that performance of stereotypic behavior probably reduces stress for the horse. With this in mind, you’ll find it is better to treat stereotypies with changes in your horse’s management—changes that reduce your horse’s frustration levels or diet—rather than by using devices that simply prevent the horse from cribbing or wind-sucking. As mentioned, guardians should consider ways to increase foraging, decrease concentrate feed, increase contact with other horses and increase the amount of time the horse is out of her stall on a regularly basis.
Please see our article on Cribbing for more information on managing cribbing in your horse.
Management of Locomotor Stereotypies
Because almost all locomotor stereotypies are displayed while the horse is stabled, allowing your horse more time out of her stall can greatly decrease these behaviors. Social access to other horses is most important in reducing locomotor stereotypies, and keeping horses in a herd setting on pasture is the best treatment (and prevention). If increasing your horse’s access to other horses isn’t possible or your horse must be stalled for extended periods of time, providing social interaction with other horses in an adjacent stall as described earlier can help you meet her social requirements. Also, daily structured exercise will help ease frustration and boredom. Because horses are very social, they enjoy the company of not only other horses but other animals as well. So if there are no other horses in your barn, you can provide a different companion animal. Ponies and goats are the most common companions for horses because their size reduces the risk that they’ll be stepped on by the horse.
Studies also show that a mirror placed in a horse’s stall that allows her to see her own reflection can reduce locomotor stereotypies. Mirror size should be gauged by the horse’s size, but a mirror approximately 4 ½ feet x 3 feet is standard. For safety, mirrors should be acrylic, and acrylic mirrors made specifically for horses are available commercially. The mirror should be mounted where the horse can see into it at a natural relaxed head height. Avoid hanging the mirror near the feed manger to prevent perceived food competition.
As with oral stereotypies, you cannot always eliminate a locomotor stereotypy by correcting the deficiency. Care should be taken to provide your horse with a highly enriched environment so as to prevent behavior problems.
Horses are very social animals who will group together and form herds if given the chance. Because of this, new horses are often integrated into existing groups of horses with relative ease. It's still a good idea to consider the comfort of your new horse and your existing horses whenever you introduce someone new to your stable and herd. This comfort can be maximized—and problems minimized—by following a few guidelines when you bring home your new horse.
Preparing for Your New Arrival
Inspect your barn Even if you already have horses in the space you plan to bring your new horse, you'll find it useful to inspect your barn. A horse new to an area will likely sniff every corner. He'll also be less wary of potential hazards, particularly if he's spooked. It's up to you to check for loose nails, hooks and other sharp edges. Inspect walls and doors for spaces that might catch a hoof or head. Make sure your feed room door closes securely and that buckets are high enough that a hoof cannot reach them. Also, ensure barriers can be put in place to block face-to-face access to barn mates if needed.
Inspect the paddock A horse who's unfamiliar with his surroundings is more likely to find a weak spot in the fencing or a hazard than a horse who's spent months grazing in the area. Check for loose fencing and debris such as sharp fallen branches, old wire or trash. Check water sources for sharp edges. In addition, if your new horse will be turned out with other horses, be sure there are two water sources in case he's herded away from one.
Check your first aid kit Have medical supplies on hand just in case your new horse encounters a hazard you didn't anticipate.
Prepare the area for your new occupant
If your horse will be stalled, have clean shavings, a water bucket that's three-quarters full and some fresh hay set up before you bring him into the stall for the first time. Your new horse will investigate his space quickly, and he'll likely take less time to settle in if he's aware of his food and water sources. If you have a choice of stalls, choose one that gives your horse the most visual access to other horses.
If you'll keep your new horse in a paddock with shelter, prepare the paddock. Again, have the water source full and some fresh hay available before you bring the new horse into the paddock for the first time. If you have a choice of paddocks, choose the paddock that gives him the best visibility of other horses but doesn't allow him to touch another horse.
Prepare and place enrichment options in the area where you'll house your horse Enrichment is defined as the process of creating a challenging environment to satisfy an animal's social, psychological and physical needs. Enrichment enhances your horse's activities and provides mental stimulation. It can decrease the likelihood of cribbing, weaving and other unwanted behaviors. It can also help you shape his behavior in his new environment. For instance, you can provide him with mental stimulation by using various feeding options, such as treat-dispensing devices, an apple or carrot pieces bobbing in his drinking water and even something as simple as 4 to 5 small hay piles instead of one. Another idea is to provide him with a wall-mounted scratch brush to rub against. For more information about enrichment, please see our article, Enriching Your Horse's Life.
Introducing Your Horse to His New Space
To minimize the stress your horse might feel upon arriving at his new home, follow these steps:
Slowly walk your horse around as soon as he comes off the trailer. Allow him to sniff and watch whatever interests him. Then give him at least 15 minutes to walk around the area close to the stall or sheltered paddock where he'll be staying.
When you've finished letting him explore outside of his new space, take your horse into the stall or paddock and walk him around, stopping at water, food and enrichment sources.
Leave him in the stall or paddock, and observe his behavior for at least one hour before leaving him unattended. During this time, look for signs of his settling in, such as shaking his body as if he was shaking off water, eating hay, holding his ears in a relaxed position and breathing normally.
Ideally, your new horse should take at least two walks with you around the property after his first night. The walks give him an opportunity to learn about his new space and become comfortable. Strategically place treats where your other horses have been known to investigate or become aroused. Allow him to discover the treats, and make a game out of exploring the space.
Introducing Your New Horse to the Herd
Whether you have just one other horse or a herd, it pays to take the time to introduce your new horse to the herd in a systematic way. The process is often called a "howdy" process, and it gives the horses time to slowly introduce themselves to one another before sharing the same space.
Think of the howdy process as a series of stages in which you gradually increase the contact your horses have with each other. Increase the amount of contact your new horse has with the others when you no longer notice arousal when contact occurs at the current stage. How long the howdy process takes depends on the individual horses. Sometimes the process can take just 24 hours, while at other times it can be a week or two before the horses can safely be together in a paddock.
Here are the stages of the howdy process:
Visual access Begin all introductions for horses with visual contact. Again, horses are quite social and naturally form herds in the wild. They're a prey species, and they have increased safety in a herd. Giving your new horse the ability to see other horses decreases his fear response and helps him to settle in more quickly. Visual contact should begin as soon as your horse enters his new space.
Minimal tactile access Once the horses accept visual access without arousal, let them sniff each other and blow into one another's nostrils (a social greeting behavior). Don't allow them to intertwine heads or necks, however. You can prevent this from happening by using fence paneling or stall doors with guards at this stage of the howdy process. Watch for pinned ears, bite attempts, squealing and hoof strikes. Don't reprimand your horses for these behaviors. Simply observe. These behaviors are normal and should decrease each time the horses have access to each other.
Increased tactile access Once the horses stop reacting, you can increase the amount of contact they have with each other. If you're introducing your new horse to a large herd, begin the process with the dominant herd member. Use a tall barn door or non-slatted fence to avoid having horses tangle their hooves and legs in a slatted fence, as forward hoof strikes are common during introductions. Place one horse on one side of the partition, and the other on the other side. The horses should have the choice to approach or not approach each other, and they should have only enough access to reach in with their head and neck. If Step 2 was conducted correctly, there will be little contact at this stage, as the horses have already become familiar with each other. The horses might sniff and blow into one another's nostrils, touch heads, touch necks or groom or nip each other. As before, make note of squealing, pinned ears, bite attempts and hoof strikes. Unless an injury is imminent, don't interfere with these behaviors—just observe. Aggressive behaviors should decrease each time the horses have access to each other.
If you have multiple horses, once this stage is completed with the dominant horse, the rest of the herd can be given access to the new horse. Always observe responses, and don't move forward to the next stage until you see only a few aroused responses or none at all.
In-paddock access (full access) For this final stage, a bit of preparation is needed. First, be sure you've inspected the paddock. Place several piles of hay around the paddock, and load up the area with enrichment devices so that several activities are available for the horses. If possible, have the horses wear paddock boots, polo wraps or other leg protection. (If your horses never wear these items, don't attempt to use them for the first time during this stage.) In addition, if your stable setup allows, begin full-access introductions in a paddock adjacent to the area you've been using for increased tactile access.
Follow these guidelines when allowing the horses to have full access to each other:
Train your new horse to come when called before you turn him out with the group.
Conduct your full-access introductions immediately after an increased tactile access session. Your new horse should be able to just walk through a door to gain access to the paddock. This reduces change and helps the process go more smoothly.
It's normal for your new horse to be chased and pushed from the herd for the first few days. These behaviors should decrease rapidly, particularly if the other stages were conducted correctly.
Eating and drinking in the presence of the other horses indicates that your new horse is feeling more comfortable in the group.
Although there's always a risk of injury, it's less likely to occur when your horses are no longer pushing the new horse out of the herd while they're eating and drinking together. The risk of injury also lessens when your new horse shows signs of comfort such as lying down, relaxing his ears, breathing normally and grooming other horses. At that point, you can consider leaving your new horse unattended in the pasture wit
Studies have shown that captive animals live healthier, less stressful lives if they have opportunities to spend time doing things they'd normally do in the wild. Giving animals outlets for their natural instincts, ways to work for their food and interesting environments to live in is called enrichment. If you go to the zoo, you'll notice that many of the animals have toys that dispense food, objects to play with and things to perch on or climb. Many live with companions or are able to see other animals from their enclosures.
Even though they're not wild animals anymore, horses need physically and mentally stimulating ways to occupy their time, too. So what kind of enrichment should you provide for your horse? To determine the best strategies for spicing up his life, think about how a wild horse spends his day. In the wild, horses spend 60 to 80% of their waking hours grazing outdoors in family herds. Compared to this, many domesticated horses lead a very unnatural life. A typical stabled horse might not even be able to look out a window or see other horses. Because he eats a nutritious but highly concentrated feed, he finishes his meals quickly and then spends hours staring at four boring walls. No wonder many stabled horses develop habits like cribbing and weaving!
It's best to find a way to give your horse more time outside, preferably grazing with friends the way his wild ancestors did. But if your horse must spend a lot of time indoors, there are still many ways to make his life more interesting.
Whenever horses hear someone scooping grain, happy nickers echo throughout the stable. Many of the grains and sweet feeds we give horses are delicious, so feeding time is often the high point of their day. Why not find a way to make the excitement last a little longer?
There are many fun feeding toys for horses on the market. Many of them dispense grain a little at a time so that horses can play and eat simultaneously. They get to spend more time doing something that brings them great pleasure and less time staring at stall walls or engaging in undesirable habits.
If you'd like to make your own feeding toy, you can clean a large plastic bottle and poke some holes in it. Hang it in your horse's stall at head level, and he'll soon discover that nuzzling or butting the toy makes grain fall out. You can also drill holes in any large, sturdy plastic container so that grain comes out as your horse pushes the toy around the stall or pasture. (A 10-gallon pail with a well-sealed top or a Boomer Ball® works well: http://www.boomerball.com.) You can provide a different kind of challenge by putting a few large rocks in your horse's feed bucket (too big to swallow) so that he has to work around them. These strategies not only make mealtimes last longer, but also make eating more entertaining for your horse.
Additional edible enrichment options include the following:
Place your horse's hay in many small piles around the pasture instead of in one big stack.
Hang carrots and other tasty snacks from high places so that they swing and take a while to eat.
Your horse can "bob for apples" if you leave some in his water bucket or trough.
Scatter treats around the pasture or stall, which will encourage your horse to forage for his food the way his wild ancestors did.
Try the Pasture Pal® Feeder, a toy that's ideal for horses who have limited opportunities to graze outside. You can put your horse's entire ration of grain in it, and when he nuzzles the roller, grain will fall out onto a plastic tray.
A company called Likit makes an assortment of long-lasting toys that horses love to lick, like the Jolly Stall Snack Treat and the Likit Tongue Twister. You can hang them from the ceiling of your horse's stall or mount them on the stall wall.
Non-edible enrichment items that you can put in your horse's stall include the Jolly Apple™, the Pas-a-Fier (a rubber toy that your horse can bite), knotted ropes and tires. If your horse gnaws on wood, he'll enjoy the Pas-A-Fier, which can be mounted in the corner of his stall. As your horse nuzzles and chews on the toy, it releases a tempting apple scent. Many horses also enjoy toys that they can kick around, like the Jolly Ball®. For playtime in the pasture, try the Equi-Spirit™ 40" soccer ball, an enormous, puncture-resistant toy made especially for horses!
Any time you're with your horse, you're training him—whether you realize it or not! Your horse is learning every time you interact with him. So take advantage of the many opportunities you have to teach your horse every day.
Riding and driving horses get training enrichment any time you take them out for exercise. But there are other kinds of training you can try, too. Clicker training is an exciting new technique that's rapidly gaining popularity in the horse world. It's great for horses of all ages, but clicker training can be particularly beneficial to horses who are too young or too old to ride and need a good mental workout! Horses are extremely intelligent and tend to learn very quickly with this method. Please see our article on Clicker Training Your Pet to learn how to get started. Begin by teaching a few easy tricks. If your horse enjoys clicker training, you can start incorporating it into your riding and groundwork as well.
An easy first behavior to teach is targeting—teaching your horse to touch something with his nose on cue. You can use a bucket, a traffic cone or a closed fist as your first target. It's best to start this training with your horse in a stall. If he starts mugging you for your treat bag, you can immediately step away for a few moments to teach him that obnoxious behavior never earns a reward.
Not only is teaching your horse to target a lot of fun, it's practical, too. Once your horse learns to target something, like a small ball on the end of a stick, you can use this new skill to move your horse around without any physical force at all—which is great when you're working with an animal who's much larger than you are! You can use targeting to move a fearful horse into a dark barn or to lead him over a bridge or an obstacle on the ground. You can even use targeting to teach a horse to load into his trailer without fussing. See our article on Teaching Your Horse to Target for more information. (You can use a clicker instead of the word "Yes.") We also recommend reading Alexandra Kurland's book, Clicker Training for Your Horse, which explains how to use this exciting method to teach your horse a new way of learning.
Try Something New
There are many different disciplines in the riding world, like dressage, hunter/jumper, driving, endurance, Western performance and games, reining and cutting. If you have a fit horse who's getting weary of one sport, you can always start training him in another one. Who knows? Maybe he has talents you haven't discovered yet!
Horses are very athletic animals and require regular exercise to stay happy and healthy. If you don't have time to ride your horse daily yourself, consider a part-lease or finding an enthusiastic horse lover who's willing to help keep your horse fit.
Riding in circles in an arena can get dull, so if you live in an area where trail riding is possible, consider teaching your horse to be calm and well-mannered on trails. Following an experienced equine friend may help him get used to the great outdoors. Lunging and working in a round pen are other ways to exercise your horse. (However, these activities shouldn't be his only form of exercise because constant turning can put stress on his legs.) Even a walk down a new road can be exciting enrichment for a horse who's too old or too young to be under saddle.
Horses enjoy all kinds of sensations. Here are a few ways to indulge your horse's sense of touch:
Remove the broom handle from a natural-fiber push broom and secure the broom to a stable, free-standing pole or to the wall of your horse's stall. Make sure the bristles are at withers-level. Your horse will love the opportunity to scratch himself on and off throughout the day.
Build a high mound of dirt or sand in your pasture for your horse to climb, or give him a nice sandy patch to roll in. (Sand is easier to brush off than mud!)
Massage your horse. This is a great way to bond and soothe any sore muscles. Massage can also help calm a fearful horse. There are various massaging techniques, including the popular Tellington TTouch®: http://www.ttouch.com/whyTTEAM.shtml.
Set up a sprinkler from time to time so that your horse can enjoy the cool spray. Some horses have fun playing in the stream of water; others simply enjoy a cool shower on a warm afternoon.
Allowing a sociable horse to spend time in a field with friends is one of the best ways to enrich his life. Even when resting, horses tend to stand close together, and good friends often groom each other's neck and shoulders. If turn-out time is impossible for some reason, visual contact with other horses can help make your horse's life more interesting. At the very least, your horse's stall should have a window to the outdoors so that he can watch what's going on and catch a glimpse of other horses instead of staring at bare walls.
If your horse lives alone, we strongly recommend getting him a friend. It's ideal to house your horse with another horse or a pony, but a donkey, a burro, a llama or a goat can also provide great comfort and enrichment. Horses develop bonds with all kinds of animals, including cats, dogs and even rabbits.
What Is a Pit Bull?
There’s a great deal of confusion associated with the label “pit bull.” This isn’t surprising because the term doesn’t describe a single breed of dog. Depending on whom you ask, it can refer to just a couple of breeds or to as many as five—and all mixes of these breeds. The most narrow and perhaps most accurate definition of the term “pit bull” refers to just two breeds: the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) and the American Staffordshire Terrier (AmStaff). Some people include the Bull Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier and the American Bulldog in this group because these breeds share similar head shapes and body types. However, they are distinct from the APBT and the AmStaff.
Because of the vagueness of the “pit bull” label, many people may have trouble recognizing a pit bull when they see one. Multiple breeds are commonly mistaken for pit bulls, including the Boxer, the Presa Canario, the Cane Corso, the Dogo Argentino, the Tosa Inu, the Bullmastiff, the Dogue de Bordeaux, the Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldog and the Olde English Bulldogge.
The Pit Bull’s History
The pit bull’s ancestors hail from England and were brought to North America by English immigrants. These descendants were bred from the bulldog, which some breed historians believe originally served as a “gripping dog” for hunters of large game. (The term “bulldog” does not refer to the American Kennel Club’s English Bulldog. This more recently developed breed serves as a loyal companion rather than a working dog.) Later, bulldogs were likely used as butcher’s dogs and helped control large livestock. Eventually, these dogs were bred to participate in an inhumane blood sport called “baiting.” Spectators found it highly entertaining to watch bulldogs pitted against bulls, bears and other large animals. During these violent events, one or more dogs were expected to attack another animal, biting it around the face and head. The dogs usually maintained their grip until the animal became exhausted from fighting and loss of blood. After animal baiting was banned in the early 1800s, people began pitting dogs against each other, and the cruel sport of dog fighting was born. As it grew in popularity, enthusiasts developed a lighter, more agile dog for the fighting ring. Some people bred their bulldogs with black and tan terriers, creating dogs who were only 25 to 30 pounds. Others may have simply selected smaller bulldogs for breeding purposes. These dogs were the forebears of the present-day pit bull.
The Pit Bull Today
Most experts agree that today’s pit bull is a short-coated dog characterized by a wide skull, powerful jaws and a muscular, stocky body. But there is great variation in the pit bull’s appearance. Typically 35 to 65 pounds, some weigh as little as 25 pounds, while others tip the scales at 80 pounds or more. Some have bulkier frames and colossal skulls; others have leaner, more muscular bodies. All are strong and athletic. With their impressive stamina and staunch work ethic, pit bulls enjoy a variety of activities, including agility, disc dog competitions, flyball, freestyle and competition obedience. They often excel in weight-pulling contests and schutzhund. Some pit bulls work cattle in herding trials, and some still function as hunting dogs.
The Pit Bull Temperament
Dog breeds are characterized by certain behavioral traits. Each breed was developed to perform a specific job, whether it be hunting rabbits, retrieving downed birds, herding livestock or sitting on people’s laps. When developing a breed, breeders select only those dogs who perform their job best to produce the next generation.
Physical abilities and behavior are both important facets of any breed. A well-bred dog should have both the physical attributes necessary to perform his job and the behavioral tendencies needed to learn it. It’s not surprising that individuals of a specific breed tend to look and behave somewhat similarly. However, it’s important to realize that even though a breed may be characterized by certain behaviors, individuals of the same breed can vary tremendously. Some dogs are courageous, while others are timid. Some dogs are tenacious, while others are easygoing. Some dogs are sociable, while others are aloof. Like people, all dogs have unique personalities.
The Influence of a Fighting History
When two dogs fight, the conflict is usually ritualized. The objective is for one dog to win the disagreement with little or no bloodshed. The participants try to intimidate each other by engaging in plenty of dramatic-looking behavior, which may include posturing, circling, growling, showing teeth and snarling. Bites delivered during a fight are typically inhibited because the point is to cause pain but not necessarily to inflict serious injuries. Pit bulls have been bred to behave differently during a fight. They may not give warning before becoming aggressive, and they’re less likely to back down when clashing with an opponent. When provoked, they may become aggressive more readily than another breed might. Sometimes they don’t inhibit their bites, so they may cause injury more often than other dogs.
Should You Keep a Pit Bull Away from Other Dogs?
Pit bulls were genetically selected for their fighting ability. What does this mean? It doesn’t mean that they can’t be around other dogs, that they’re unpredictably aggressive or that they will always fight to the death. These are all common myths about pit bulls. It does mean that they may be easily encouraged to fight with other dogs.
The best way to prevent the development of aggressive behavior toward other dogs is to focus on early socialization. To learn how to interact, play and communicate with members of their own species, dogs of all breeds need to be well socialized during puppyhood. If a puppy has many good experiences with other dogs, any future unpleasant experiences will have less of an impact on him. Suppose a puppy is playing with another dog and the play escalates into a fight. This is relatively normal, and most well-socialized puppies will still want to play with other dogs afterward. If, on the other hand, the puppy has had very few experiences with other dogs, a spat may make a bigger impression on him. He may decide that he doesn’t like other dogs, and that feeling may contribute to fearful or aggressive responses to them when he matures.
Pit bull puppies may need even more socialization than other breeds. Numerous positive social experiences can teach a pit bull puppy to enjoy the company of other dogs. Frequent social interaction may also help pit bull puppies modify their natural play style, which is often more rough-and-tumble than that of other breeds. However, because of pit bulls’ natural tendencies, a little squabble between friends can turn into a serious fight, even if a pit bull has been very well socialized. And, after experiencing a fight or two, a pit bull may become testy with unfamiliar dogs in general. Some pit bulls, like individuals of many breeds, only remain friendly with dogs they meet during puppyhood—which is another great reason to make sure your pit bull puppy makes plenty of friends.
Are Pit Bulls Dangerous to People?
Despite the fact that pit bulls were bred to fight with each other, early breeders took pride in producing dogs that were trustworthy and friendly to people. Handlers bathed their opponent’s dog before a match, stood in the pits with the battling dogs and often pulled them apart to end a fight. Any dog who behaved aggressively toward a person was culled, or killed, to avoid passing on such an undesirable trait. Pit bulls typically lived in their owner’s homes, where they earned the nickname “nursemaid’s dog” because they were so reliable with young children. In fact, “Pete the Pup,” the children’s friend from the old TV series “Our Gang,” was a pit bull.
Why the Bad Rap?
Sadly, the pit bull has acquired a reputation as an unpredictable and dangerous menace. His intimidating appearance has made him attractive to people looking for a macho status symbol, and this popularity has encouraged unscrupulous breeders to produce puppies without maintaining the pit bull’s typical good nature with people. To make matters worse, irresponsible owners interested in presenting a tough image often encourage their pit bulls to behave aggressively. If a pit bull does bite, he’s far more likely to inflict serious injuries than most other breeds, simply because of his size and strength. A pit bull bite is also far more likely to draw media attention. Many dogs of other breeds bite people, but these incidents almost always go unreported. They’re just not exciting enough fodder for television and print.
Despite this bad rap, a well-bred, well-socialized and well-trained pit bull is one of the most delightful, intelligent and gentle dogs imaginable. It is truly a shame that the media continues to portray such a warped image of this beautiful, loyal and affectionate breed. Pit bulls once enjoyed a wonderful reputation. Some of the most famous dogs in American history were pit bulls. A pit bull named Stubby, a decorated hero during World War One, earned several medals and was even honored at the White House. During duty, he warned soldiers of gas attacks, found wounded men in need of help and listened for oncoming artillery rounds. Pit bulls have been featured in well-known advertising campaigns for companies such as Levis, Buster Brown Shoes and Wells Fargo. The image of a pit bull, which was considered a symbol of unflagging bravery and reliability, represented the United States on recruiting and propaganda posters during World War One. Many famous figures, including Helen Keller, President Theodore Roosevelt, General George Patton, President Woodrow Wilson, Fred Astaire and Humphrey Bogart, shared their lives and homes with pit bulls.
Modern pit bulls can still be ambassadors for their breed. Some are registered therapy dogs and spend time visiting hospitals and nursing homes. Some work in search-and-rescue. Tahoe, Cheyenne and Dakota, three search-and-rescue pit bulls from Sacramento, California, worked tirelessly at the World Trade Center during the aftermath of 9/11. Others, like Popsicle, an accomplished U.S. customs dog, work in narcotics and explosives detection. Still others serve as protection or sentry dogs for the police. The majority are cherished family members. Pit bulls become very attached to their people, and most love nothing better than cuddling on the couch or sleeping in bed with their pet parents (preferably under the covers)!
Pit Bull Myths
There are numerous myths circulating about pit bulls, some invented by people who are afraid of the breed and others disseminated by well-meaning pit bull advocates. A few of the most common myths follow:
“Pit bulls have locking jaws!” This is patently false. There is nothing unique about the anatomy of pit bull jaws. They do not “lock.” The pit bull’s fighting style, like that of other terriers, usually involves grabbing and shaking. Perhaps because of their hunting and bull-baiting history, some pit bulls also have a tendency to grab and hold on with determination. This does not mean that they can’t or won’t let go of another dog once they bite. However, because they’re powerful dogs, pit bulls do have strong jaw muscles. Like all dog parents, pit bull parents should know how to break up a dog fight.
“If a pit bull bites another dog, he’s going to start biting people next.” Research confirms that dog-aggressive dogs are no more likely to direct aggression toward people than dogs who aren’t aggressive to other dogs. In fact, some of the best fighting dogs are the most trustworthy with people.
“All pit bulls are gentle angels who can be left unsupervised with dogs of any size, cats and other animals.” Pit bulls aren’t vicious monsters—but they are dogs who have been bred to fight with other dogs. While some pit bulls are indeed very easygoing, others should not be left alone with other dogs, cats or other pets. Pit bulls are strong, determined dogs. It might not be a pit bull who starts a disagreement, but he may be the one to finish it.
“The dog park is a great place to socialize pit bulls.” This statement is sometimes true. Some pit bulls visit dog parks on a daily basis to frolic happily with many dog friends. For others, however, the dog park isn’t an appropriate place to play. This raises quite a dilemma for some urban pit bull parents. Pit bulls are high-energy dogs and need lots of exercise, but some just aren’t good candidates for the dog park. Because they’re very muscular and easily excited, friendly pit bulls can sometimes overwhelm and even injure their playmates during rough games. And pit bulls may become aggressive more quickly when exposed to the hectic, high-octane energy of a dog park environment. If there’s a squabble, a pit bull may be one of the first dogs to jump into the fray. For these reasons, many responsible pit bull parents find other ways to exercise their dogs. (See Pit Bull Needs, below, for tips on exercising your pit bull.)
Is a Pit Bull Right for You?
Although many are self-appointed lap dogs, pit bulls, like most terriers, can be extremely tenacious and energetic, too. They’re easily excited and, when in an agitated state, they may have little control over their behavior if they haven’t been taught to inhibit their impulses. This trait has given pit bulls a reputation for being “mouthy”—they tend to bite harder in play than other breeds. They are also quite stoic and can be insensitive to pain. These characteristics make the pit bull a sturdy, enthusiastic working dog and a fun-loving companion, but they can also make this breed a handful for some pet parents. Pit bulls aren’t for everyone.
Pit Bull Needs
All pets need parents who are dedicated to meeting their behavioral and medical needs. But pit bulls require a degree of special treatment. They’re simply a lot of dog. Always ready to go, they work hard and they play hard. They’re powerful chewers, they’re energetic athletes, and their active minds need plenty of exercise, too. If you think a pit bull might be the right dog for you, read on to learn about what he’ll need in life. Consider the following needs carefully before committing to pit bull ownership.
Thorough socialization. A young pit bull needs plenty of early socialization to people, dogs and other animals, beginning as young as seven weeks of age and continuing throughout adulthood. Providing daily socialization opportunities with new people and animals is most important during the sensitive developmental period that takes place between 7 and 16 weeks of age.
Gentle, consistent training. All pit bull puppies and adults need good training. Their pet parents should use methods based on positive reinforcement and consistent, fair rules. Although pit bulls are tough on the outside, they’re often extremely sensitive dogs, and harsh training techniques are neither appropriate nor necessary. Puppy Kindergarten is crucial for young pit bulls. After puppyhood, your pit bull will need continued gentle guidance throughout his life. Mature pit bulls should master basic obedience skills at the very least. If possible, pit bull parents should progress through intermediate and advanced obedience as well. Earning an AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certificate is an excellent way to ensure that your pit bull is a polite ambassador for his breed.
Training and Games for Dogs.
Lots of exercise for the body. Because they’re athletic, high-energy dogs, pit bulls need daily aerobic exercise. If you’re a runner, an avid hiker, a Frisbee® enthusiast or a cyclist, a pit bull might be the ideal companion for you! Some pit bull parents arrange play dates with dogs who get along with theirs. Others run, cycle or use inline skates with their dogs. A rousing game of fetch or tug can also go a long way in tiring out a pit bull.
Lots of exercise for the brain. Mental workouts are also a must. They can be almost as tiring as physical exercise! You can stimulate your pit bull’s mind by providing food-puzzle toys, things to chew and other types of enrichment. Giving your pit bull entertaining “jobs” to do can help keep him out of trouble when he’s home alone, too.
Neutering or spaying. Pit bulls should be neutered or spayed. In addition to the health and behavioral benefits for your dog, neutering or spaying will help reduce the number of unwanted pit bulls who end up in shelters all over the country.
Making Your Pit Bull an Ambassador
If you bring a pit bull into your life, you’re taking on a big responsibility. Many people have never met a pit bull. Realize that these people, especially those who have heard media reports proclaiming the pit bull a dangerous animal, might be afraid of your dog. Your dog can either fuel pit bull myths or become an ambassador for his breed. It’s all up to you and the way you handle him.
As a responsible pit bull parent, you have the power to educate the public and change people’s minds about this much maligned breed. The best way to accomplish this is to have a well-controlled, well-socialized, well-behaved dog at your side. It’s hard for people to make the argument that your dog is vicious when they’re faced with a peaceful, gentle pet in an obedient heel or down-stay at your feet. Teaching your pit bull a few entertaining tricks, such as high five and roll over, can make him seem less intimidating, too. It’s also a good idea to thoroughly educate yourself about pit bull history and common breed characteristics. If you’re knowledgeable about the breed, you can help people understand what great dogs pit bulls can be. Please see the recommended resources below to learn where to find accurate information.
Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) and Other Limitations.
BSL: Outdated but Still Around
Pit bulls and pit bull mixes are banned in certain American cities and in some foreign countries. The ASPCA, other non-profit organizations and pit bull advocates work hard to educate lawmakers about the futility of breed-specific legislation. Although the effectiveness of this type of legislation continues to be hotly debated, recent scientific studies comparing bites to humans before and after BSL have shown that the rates remained the same after legislation was enacted.
There are several reasons why banning certain breeds is not likely to be effective. First, the breeds most often involved in bite injuries and fatalities change from year to year and from one area of the country to another, depending on the popularity of different breeds. Although genetics do play a role in determining whether a dog will bite, other factors—such as whether the animal is well socialized, supervised, humanely trained and safely confined—play much greater roles. Second, correct breed identification by bystanders, pet owners, police, medical workers and animal control personnel is notoriously unreliable. It becomes virtually impossible with mixed breeds. Third, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which conducted a 20-year study that listed the breeds involved in fatal attacks, there’s currently no accurate way to identify the total number of dogs of a particular breed and, consequently, there’s no measure to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill. In fact, the CDC says its own 20-year study is not an appropriate tool for making breed-specific policies or legislative decisions. Instead, the organization advocates “dangerous dog” laws that focus on individual dogs of any breed who show aggressive behavior.
If you’re thinking about adopting a pit bull, consider the potential downside of BSL before making a commitment. What if you want to move to a city or county that doesn’t allow the breed? (If you’re already a pit bull parent and you’re moving to a different location, it’s wise to make sure that you’ll be able to keep your dog. Contact local authorities well in advance so that you can make informed decisions and necessary arrangements.)
Other Challenges to Consider
Other cons to pit bull parenthood include housing and insurance limitations. Some landlords won’t allow pit bulls, and some insurance agencies refuse to offer pit bull parents coverage. If you have a pit bull and you’re trying to find a place to live, it helps to make your dog his own “resume.” Include a charming photo, as well as a list of any obedience classes he has taken. Many landlords are impressed by a Canine Good Citizen certificate (mentioned above). If you can show a worried landlord that you’re a responsible pet parent and your pit bull is a friendly, well-behaved dog, the landlord may alter his or her rules.
Summing It All Up
Pit bulls aren’t all bad. They’re not ferocious beasts to be feared and reviled. Pit bulls aren’t all good either. They have teeth and the potential to use them, just like any other dog. Their powerful bodies and persistent nature make them formidable animals. As such, they should be treated with care and respect. They require a great deal of exercise, proper training and responsible management. But if you’re willing to devote the time and effort necessary, befriending a pit bull can be immensely rewarding. Along with their strength and spirit comes an inspiring zest for life and an ardent affinity for people. As any committed pit bull parent will tell you, beneath the brawn, most are faithful, fun-loving, affectionate companions. So before you make up your mind about them, get to know a few pit bulls. You may be surprised.
Recommended Reading and Web Sites
The Working Pit Bull by Diane Jessup (TFH Publisher)
The Ultimate American Pit Bull Terrier by Jacqueline O’Neil (IDG Books Worldwide)
The Pit Bull Placebo by Karen Delise (Anubis Publishing)
Useful Web Sites
www.workingpitbull.com: This Web site was created by Diane Jessup, author of The Working Pit Bull, Colby’s Book of the American Pit Bull Terrier and The Dog Who Spoke with Gods. It includes information about pit bull history, physical attributes, care, rescue and sporting activities.
www.pbrc.net: Pit Bull Rescue Central is a virtual shelter and educational resource for pit bull parents, foster parents and breed enthusiasts.
www.wallacethepitbull.ning.com: This site is dedicated to a Pit Bull named Wallace, once an unwanted shelter dog, who has won a number of national disc dog championships.
www.badrap.org/rescue/: This site was created by a group called BAD RAP (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls). It offers breed-related information, lists pros and cons of Pit Bull parenting and provides links for those interested in adopting Pit Bulls.