Monday, January 24, 2011

On treating animals as if they were humans

2. Your Cat: Simple New Secrets to a Longer, Stronger Life by Elizabeth M. Hodgkins, D.V.M., Esq.

This book was recommended to me as we adopted our kitten (Hi, Johanna!). It's less of a how-to book on all aspects cat, and more of a book on nutrition and WTF is wrong with the pet food industry. The author draws her material from her background in formerly working in the pet food industry and being a vet as well as a cat breeder. She finds it unbelievable that cats, obligate carnivores, are fed crazy amounts of carbohydrates over protein in cans that come emblazoned with fear-assuaging phrases such as "proven balanced meal." Except that the proof has been drawn from feeding healthy and active young cats a food for only mere months. In Hodgkins's view, this equals feeding only hamburgers to teenage athletes for a few months, and then declaring that a hamburger-only diet is a balanced diet for all human beings.

Reading this book, it seems as if the pet food industry puts stuff in cat food that people would eat themselves, and thus think it's good for the cat. As an example, a lot of dry food has cranberries in it to fight urinary tract infections. Hodgkins's opinion on this? Utter bollocks: cranberries don't do anything to cats. Why does cat food have so much corn and potatoes in them; starch that they would never, ever eat in the wild? Hodgkins gets exasperated: no wonder cats are obese and are more prone to feline diabetes than ever if you just feed them carbs and sugars they are not used to processing. When more and more obese cats began to appear in vet offices, the pet food industry's reaction was to cut down on fat content in the food and call it diet food. Again, sounds like this was more aimed for humans than at cats, who need fat.

Same with dry food that is supposedly good for the cat's teeth, but again this has not been proven clinically. Would your doctor recommend frosted flakes for your kid to fight tartar in her teeth? asks Hodgkins.

Although this book is inundated with useful and often surprising information, the most valuable bits are probably the appendices, where Hodgkins lets the reader in on how to read cat food labels (and how to count the carbohydrate content, because it will not be listed), and does a comparison of a variety of foods from dry kibble to rat carcasses to compare the protein levels in the foods. The appendices also address common myths about cats and cat health.

This would be a great handbook to have in the house if you have a cat. Although it leans heavily on nutrition (which is important!), it also addresses the most common causes of illness in today's indoor cats, and overall cat health including exercise.

3. Cesar's Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems by Cesar Millan

I know, we did not adopt a dog, but this book happened to be right next to the cat book at the library, and as I'm interested in animal behavior in general and I enjoy watching The Dog Whisperer, I figured, why not.

Before I go any further, this essay about body language and Cesar Millan, written by Malcolm Gladwell, is amazing. Read it! One reason why I enjoy watching The Dog Whisperer is to see how Millan so subtly employs his methods on the humans he's training to be with their dogs. In one episode I saw, an owner was obviously nervous and scared of the dog, and at the right moment Millan put a hand over the man's shoulder and said something encouraging--and you could just see how the "energy" transferred from him to the owner.

This book is part biography, part a guide to Millan's training techniques. Although I'm not too keen on his New Agey vocabulary about 'energy' (nor the celebrity name dropping in the book, although... it's kind of endearing because he's so honest about it), Millan seems to know his stuff. Reading this book also made me like him as a personality even more: he acknowledges all the criticism he has received from other schools of animal behaviorists, but not once does he get defensive about it. He says that some other methods work better for other dogs, and he also goes on to explain what in his world words like correction or assertive or discipline mean in case people are misinterpreting him.

Often he explains these terms in ways understandable in the human world: as an example, discipline is explained through his marriage. If he had not learned to be a disciplined human being and behave according to set boundaries, his marriage would have failed. If he was not disciplined, he would lose his business for not meeting appointment times or feeding and taking care of the dogs. There's no yelling or violence involved with the term.

It's sad that he needs to explain these terms using the human world, because throughout his book the biggest piece of criticism he has toward dog owners is, you treat your animal like a four-legged human, and that's why he's not happy. Millan explains how dogs behave in dog packs, and how humans often interpret their behavior as human behavior. "He's jumping on me--he must be happy to see me!" (Among dogs, jumping is often an act of asserting dominance).

Although my family has always had dogs, a lot of the information was new to me. I have met dogs who obsess over objects (which might get dangerous to people trying to approach the object), but I did not know that a dog fetching a baseball over and over again can also be redirected obsession and frustration contributing to bad mental health rather than just a dog having a good time.

The book is mainly about learning how to read dog cues instead of human cues in a dog. It's been proven that dogs don't feel guilt, although owners think they do (dogs just respond to humans tut-tutting them--even when they have not done anything!), nor do dogs seek revenge for something that happened the day before. A good example of this is a case where a dog has chewed his owner's shoes while she's been gone. Millan says this is not the dog paying back: it's just that the dog got stressed out, frustrated, and then smelled the owner somewhere; followed the scent, and the scent made the dog even more excited, so he started playing with the shoes. And soon, voila: a torn shoe. I suppose we project these human qualities onto dogs or any other pets because it's the easiest way to relate to them: I just told my cat I hope she won't hate me for giving her meds and I thought she was giving me the stink-eye until she curled up in my lap as usual.

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