Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Part 1: Predator, Prey, Pet. Pack, Herd or Solitary.

*please note that while many of my beliefs here are backed up by scientific fact, many are based on my OPINION and EXPERIENCE. I'm sure many people will disagree with my thoughts on this and think I am full of crap, and that is ok, that is why this is my blog, and not a text book* *grin*

Quick, off the top of your head what are the three most common animals kept as pets?

Chances are you said "Dogs, cats and... um... fish?" or maybe instead of fish you said "birds?" When people think of "pets" they generally think of cats and dogs. But people keep a wide range of animals as pets from dogs and cats to ferrets, hamsters, goats, parakeets, horses, pigs, iguanas and the list goes on and on and on. But for the average pet owner the pet of choice is a dog or a cat.

This is no accident. This isn't random. Dogs and cats are by nature distinctly skilled at being pets. As predatory animals they are more likely to fit into our lives and by instinct they are born with behaviours that make them uniquely ideal to share our lives. However, these selfsame instincts and behaviours make some of our human tendencies (like getting bored with them or sick of caring for them and deciding we just don't want them any more)uniquely disruptive to their well being.

Let's examine some of these "predator" instincts in more detail:

*The instinct to pack. Dogs pack. Cats, to a lesser degree, do as well. They form colonies. This makes our two top pets want to bond with us, become attached to us, become a part of our family. Humans share this instinct. It's one of the reasons why we form family units, towns, etc. There is a physical, mental, emotional, SURVIVAL benefit to forming a larger group to cooperate in finding food, shelter and comfort.

*The instinct to not foul their den. This is a big one, it is what allows us to house train our pets to not crap all over the place. Predators often stay fairly stationary and have a home range. In this range they usually have a favorite place to sleep and bear their young. because they stay there, they don't want to live in their own refuse so they walk outside the den to do their business. We simply extend their idea of "den" to be our whole house instead of just their bed and TADA! Housebroke pet. With cats the instinct is to be able to bury their droppings. With most of them the 'training" is as simple as giving them a place to bury it. Either way it all boils down to the same thing, by nature they don;t want to live in their own crap.

*The instinct to have a well defined pack hierarchy. This is stronger in dogs than in cats, but even cats want to know who is in charge. Some animals think THEY should be in charge and will challenge anyone, human or animal, who tries to be in charge, but for the most part KNOWING THEIR ROLE is more important to them than exactly where in the ladder of leadership they fall.

*Diet. Not an instinct but a biological need for survival. Predator animals tend to eat when they can and spend the rest of their time on social interaction.

Now, let's look at these same instincts as they apply to prey animals such as horses, goats, etc.:

*The instinct to pack. In this case it would actually be "herd". Prey animals form herds because there is safety in numbers. predators can only pick so many off the edges and those closer to the middle will be less likely to get made into lunch. They are also "flighty" and prone to stampede. Their flighty behaviour is a survival mechanism. We may train them to not fear things but in their heart of hearts they are always and will always be looking for the next cheetah in the grass. They may occasionally pair up with a close friend or one of their offspring but for the most part they need a herd but not so much a single long term relationship, to feel secure.

*The instinct to not foul their den. Plain and simple this doesn't exist in most prey animals. Because they don't have a den. Prey animals, generally, are almost always hooved grazing animals. Their food is everywhere. They walk on it, sleep on it, drop their waste on it. If you slept in a bed of mashed potatoes, walked on mashed potatoes, and pooped on mashed potatoes... you would have no instinct to not mess up a pile of mashed potatoes just because it was inside 4 walls and a roof. many people have had success training prey animals to use a litter box but it took training, without the benefit of instinct. The closest most prey animals come to this instinct is this: they tend to empty their bowels as they fill their stomach and they tend to mark over the urine of another of their kind.

*The instinct to have a clearly defines pack hierarchy. Here we are good. In some ways it is even more important to a prey animal than to a predator. Because they don't have some of the same instincts that make predator animals so natural as pets their desire to fill their role and have it clearly defined for them is a fantastic tool for fitting them into our lives and us into theirs.

*Diet. Prey animals usually spend the majority of their time eating. their social interaction is either directly related to eating, or squeezed in between periods of eating.

What does this mean as far as them being pets and bonding?

Well, predator animals tend to bond directly with US. Take a housedog and stick him outside alone and 99 times out of 100 he will be miserable even if you give him enough food and water and shelter. Have a dog in your family for 8 years then remove him and place him in a new home with new people and new rules and he will usually go through a lengthy transition trying to adjust. Prey animals may bond with us, but their primary bond is usually with their herd. And instinct often has them more developed to adjust to changes in that herd. In GENERAL... if I leave for a week my dog will spend that whole week looking for me even if his meals times never change. My goats and horses are not likely to notice i am gone as long as their meals arrive on time.

One of the biggest effects on this is their eating habits. Because predators stuff their face with high intensity food then hang out for hours a lot of their bonding with the pack is unrelated to food, even though at it's core a pack usually forms as an aid in getting that food. Their favorite pack mate may be completely unrelated to their food source (as evidence, see my husband and his dog Misty. I think he has fed her maybe 20 times in her entire life but he is clearly her favorite human anyway). With prey animals preference for a human is often directly related to who gives them food, or what kind of food item the humans present currently have to offer.

So what is the point to all this? The point is that predator animals, the ones we normally keep as PETS, are designed in such a way that constant shifting of homes is traumatic for them. Being away from their pack is traumatic for them. Even if all of their biological needs are being met the change in environment disrupts their lives to a significant level. Many dogs when their owner dies spend weeks, if not months, adjusting. Prey animals, the ones we normally keep as livestock, are much more adapted to changing hands. In general a horse moved to a new home will be traumatized just until he gets his next meal and becomes accustomed to his new pasture mates. Being bounced around from home to home is not ideal for any of them, but in general because of their nature it is a much harder situation mentally and physically for predator animals to be shunted around than for prey animals.

Now I said "usually" and "in general" a lot there. Because there are always exceptions to the rule. Two of my goats would be stressed by a change in the herd for about a day then not give a hoot as long as they had food. the other two wouldn't care about changing homes but if they were separated would likely experience a huge trauma. They are twins. Thy might as well be one goat. My late pony Jamie experienced a serious long lasting trauma after his dam died. He was NEVER the same. And as much as I loved my Westie, macs, that I had years ago... as long as he had food and a couch he was blissfully happy. I could leave him for a week and as long as he had a human around to spoil him he could not possibly have cared less.

But in general, this is the basis for my feelings that it is much more important to make a life long commitment to a predator animal pet than to a prey animal pet/livestock. This is the reason why I feel much more of a gut reaction to someone giving away their dog than I do to someone selling their horse.


  1. ....or giving up 2 beautiful cats that were entrusted to them less than 2 years ago....


  2. "....or giving up 2 beautiful cats that were entrusted to them less than 2 years ago...."


    Was that the people who took two of the Four Winds? UGH! That is the worst part of placing animals... when someone looks great on paper, and in person, and turns out to be a flake anyway. I've had it happen a couple of times and is just SUCKS. Gah. I hope they at least tried to find them a good home. :-( I'm sorry they turned out to be twits.

    That is one of the weird things that i will address in my next post: some of the BEST homes I have placed animals into were the ones who looked the worst on paper, and some of the worst homes looked textbook perfect.

  3. Yup, 2 of the 4 winds.... If I can't trust the humans to provide a stable home themselves, can I trust them to place them in one with someone else? They're coming back to me because: 1. behavioral issues have developed and I need to retrain them, and 2. I'm not sure I'd trust them to rehome them in a solid manner. I'd know the humans involved for a decade, even traveled with them, and seen them with the 2 cats they already had and loved.... so I thought they'd be as loving and dedicated with the boys..... sometimes you just can't tell.

    Sadly, I had 2 other homes that wanted them at the time.... you know when they were adorable socialized kittens..... finding a new home now will be much harder. I may have to send the 3 ferals I've taken in to live in a barn so that the cats who've never lived outside can stay in.... just cannot do 8 cats in a 1 bedroom apartment.... I'm crazy, but I'm not quite that crazy..... will break my heart if it comes down to that, but the three that started out completely feral at least would stand a chance of surviving as barn cats.... the others wouldn't really.

  4. I'm glad they are coming back to you, at least. Will you give them back their wind names? You know, if you have to find someone to take the ferals as farm cats don't feel bad. We had to send two of ours out full time, and two more now come and go as they please and they are SOOOO happy. The other two are aghast at the idea of "Outside" but I bet those ferals will thrive as barn cats with a job to do. It may not be as "safe" but for ferals life on a farm can be a pretty awesome life.

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