Why do cats knead? Why do dogs lick you? The Science of Quirky Pets

Bella the beagle loves Amazon boxes. She tears them up, while ignoring the other deliveries. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post but has never met Bella.)

Little Bit, a recently deceased tortoiseshell cat, was also obsessed – but with socks. She would raid the laundry basket in the middle of the night and rummage through the open suitcases of guests, who invariably ran out of a sock in the morning.

Pets do weird things. At least that may seem so to their humans. But these traits often make perfect sense for pets, say scientists who study animal behavior. Such conduct is often a modern embodiment of their evolutionary roots and also builds on their current connection to humans.

“These behaviors are not invented on the spot,” says Carlo Siracusa, associate professor of clinical behavioral medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “They are a behavioral evolution of their ancestors who have been adapted to their new life as pets now that they live with humans.”

Yet dogs can also learn from humans, just like children learn from adults – in fact, they often learn even better than children. “If you show kids how to do something and give them unnecessary steps, kids will copy them,” says Angie Johnston, director of the Canine Cognition Center and Social Learning Laboratory at Boston College. “But once the dogs figure out how to do it, they stop the unnecessary steps. Dogs understand faster than children what the end of the game is.”

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Even so, their old instincts persist. Dogs, for example, often “make their bed” – as humans describe it – by scratching on blankets, sheets or dog beds, then turning over several times before settling down, a habit that probably comes from from an age-old instinct to create a safe and warm place to sleep.

“Think about where animals sleep in the wild,” says Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona. “They line an area before lying down on it.”

They also sometimes spin in circles before pooping, which some researchers attribute to an attempt to align with the Earth’s magnetic field, specifically the north-south axis. Not all scientists are convinced. “It’s still unclear what’s going on here,” says Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere, director of the Thinking Dog Center at CUNY Hunter College. “A lot of work remains to be done.”

Sometimes dogs slap the floor after pooping. (Hint: Wait a few seconds before bending down to pick up their trash to avoid being hit by flying debris.) They don’t bury their droppings.

“They deposit odors in these areas,” MacLean says, which may explain their hesitation about a place to poop. “They’re looking for the best area in town to put up a billboard. They want a good place to advertise. Scratching creates a ground disturbance, to attract attention. It’s almost like drawing a picture with a big red marker around it.

The sign is for other dogs, another quirk they inherited from wolves, he says. “Territory marking is most likely one of the functions of this communication, but there’s a lot of other information that could be encoded in scents that we don’t understand well as humans,” he says. “For example, animals may be able to judge things like the reproductive or health status of other individuals based on olfactory signatures.”

Cats, on the other hand, almost always bury their waste. “They’re clouding the waters,” says Monique Udell, director of the Human-Animal Interaction Laboratory at Oregon State University. “It could be the modern version of keeping a low profile.”

Mikel Delgado, founder of Feline Minds, a Sacramento feline behavior counseling service, says some of these traits derive from cats’ wild origins.

“Cats are very predatory, they are naturally active at dawn and dusk, they are in the middle of the food chain – both hunters and hunters – with certain natural behaviors, such as scratching, and we cannot learn that. ,” she says.

If You Think Cats Are Antisocial, That Could Be You, Scientists Say

Experts also insist that cats’ reputation as socially distant is undeserved. They have facial scent glands, and when they headbutt their human, they likely deposit secretions to mark their social partners, says Kristyn Vitale, assistant professor of animal health and behavior at Unity College.

“Kneading” is what kittens do to their mothers when nursing to stimulate milk production. Adult cats can “knead” humans when they feel relaxed or are trying to calm down. (Tip: keep their fingernails trimmed.)

“It’s like toddler thumb sucking,” Udell says.

Your dog manipulates you but does not kiss you

While dogs share many behaviors inherited from wolves, they have also developed a few of their own, for example, “puppy eyes”, the innocent gaze that humans are unable to resist.

“They want to be connected to us,” says Jeffrey Stevens, director of the Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Dogs have developed certain muscles around their eyes to manipulate humans. They look at us like that, and it changes our behavior.

Like wolves, dogs also like to lick faces. Humans think their pet is kissing them. Sorry, they are not.

“That’s how wolf pups get food from their parents’ mouths,” MacLean explains. “It can also be a sign of submission. When a lower-ranking individual approaches a higher-ranking individual, they drop very low and lick the dominant to say, “I’m not a threat to you.” ”

There are some behaviors that researchers can’t explain, such as “Zoomies,” the term often used to describe a dog’s frantic and seemingly random movements, likely a release of energy.

“My dog ​​runs in crazy manic circles with her mouth open, tongue sticking out, ears back and buttocks tucked in, and if I disturb her while she’s doing it, she gets even more hyperactive,” says Byosiere. “She gets something out of her system and can’t concentrate until she does. But we have no science about it.

One of Johnston’s three “tap dancing” dogs, she says. “When he’s excited, he kicks with his front paws, then jumps to his four feet and circles in the air,” she says. “He does that when he’s excited or happy. I do not know where it comes from. »

Smell can be a great motivator

As for Bella, the dog who preferred Amazon boxes to all others, the explanation seems to be her great success in sniffing out the snacks they contained: she could smell the smell of protein bars in the Amazon packets. After making her way inside, she ate almost all of them, except for a few that she stuffed behind the couch cushions in an emergency.

“She was very picky about it,” says Jeffrey Levi, a professor of health management and policy at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, one of Bella’s members. “She never eats the wrappers.”

Little Bit, the sock-addicted cat, was also apparently motivated by smell.

“Many animals carry socks and shoes,” says Udell. “Humans produce odors under their feet, so if you want to get closer to your human, there’s nothing like a good smelly sock.”

That seems fair to Cathy Miller, Little Bit’s human companion and an acupressure practitioner living in Boulder, Colorado. Miller must have warned guests “to close their luggage at night,” she said. “We were just happy that her fascination wasn’t with underwear.”

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