For most people, the phrase ‘Wageningen animal research’ brings to mind pigs, cows, chickens and fish. But for the past four years cats and dogs have also been crossing the threshold of Zodiac. ‘Companion animals are very important in our society. Life sciences includes them too.’
Noa, half Labrador and half Golden Retriever, does tests as part of a study into the relationship between dog-raising style and canine behaviour. Photos: Sven Menschel
Noa would like nothing better than to reach up and grab that tasty dog treat from the table. The eleven-year-old half Labrador, half Golden Retriever stretches longingly in its direction. Until her owner pulls her firmly by the lead past the temptation. ‘Do you see how she does that?’ whispers Bonne Beerda of Behavioural Ecology. ‘That is actually what this research is all about: how does the owner handle the dog?’
To avoid causing distraction in the test room, we watch Noa, her owner and a researcher from behind a one-way screen, the kind used in interrogation rooms in American police series. Cameras record every action that occurs in the grey-painted room in Zodiac, even during breaks: how do the dog and owner interact then?
This nutrition and behavioural centre for dogs and cats was set up four years ago when the animal researchers moved from the Marijkeweg in Wageningen to the campus. ‘The interest in companion animals coincided with the switch from zootechnics to animal sciences,' explains Guido Bosch of Animal Nutrition. ‘Before that, we studied cows, pigs, chickens and fish; since then the focus has widened to include the one-and-a-half million dogs and nearly three million cats in the Netherlands. They are very important in our society. Life sciences includes them too.’
Traditionally, companion animals are the research field of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University. Not that Utrecht and Wageningen are in competition, believes Beerda. Over there, they focus on the health problems of individual animals. ‘If you have a dog that chases its own tail, they can tell you in Utrecht what medicines must be taken and what behavioural therapy is needed. We study where deviant behaviour comes from. It might be inherent to the animal itself or stem from the environment, including the owner.’
The cats studied by the researchers in the nutrition and behavioural centre in Wageningen live on site. Some thirty castrated male cats and spayed female cats spend the day in mixed groups of eight animals in a room with outdoor access. ‘If you do behavioural research on cats you have to provide their accommodation,’ tells Beerda. ‘Cats are less used to travelling than dogs. If they had to come here for a behavioural test, they would be really distressed by the time they arrived.’
The campus cats also take part in welfare research. For example, students learn which signals indicate excitement. In order to see this in an extreme form, they then do stress research in a cat shelter. ‘We are keen to avoid inducing stress here,’ tells Bosch. ‘Our cats are too valuable for that. Stress would interfere with the nutrition research we are doing, for example.’
Not only are foods tested for manufacturers who do not have the necessary facilities, but an important question for the researcher is why so many cats are overweight. As with people, for animals this is a harbinger of all sorts of ailments. This is why Bosch is trying to find a balance between protein content, tastiness and the satiation offered by the food. But another issue is also addressed: the cat's personality.
‘At the moment we are looking at whether impulsivity increases the risk of overeating. We have a test for this. Cats can choose to press one of two pedals. Pressing the one pedal get them a small treat immediately, pressing the other pedal gets them a bigger reward but they have to wait for it.’ Initial results indicate that impulsive cats, the great majority of whom choose the quick reward, are at greater risk of being overweight than cautious animals.
When carrying out tests on dogs, the Wageningen behavioural centre uses volunteers, owners who apply with their foot-footed friends. It is more work to keep dogs than cats, says behavioural ecologist Beerda in explaining the different approach. Who would let them out three times a day, for example? Moreover, as in-house accommodation is not necessary, it is ethically undesirable, the researcher believes. ‘After all, our dog research mainly concerns the human-animal relationship, how this translates into problematic behaviour like separation anxiety or aggression.’
For example, Beerda and his colleagues have helped carry out behavioural tests designed to demonstrate aggression and have closely examined the test for Socially Acceptable Behaviour. Many breed associations use this to exclude aggressive animals from the breeding population. How predictive actually is this test, which subjects a dog to all sorts of test conditions, such as confrontations with dummies of other dogs or strangely dressed people? ‘We did not devise the test conditions, they are taken from the literature, but we did validate the behavioural test and proposed changes to it. A reliable instrument is important, especially where an issue is concerned that is often an emotive one.’
But not all the research in the behavioural centre is in some way of immediate social relevance. In the room next to Noa, French Mastiff Fientje and her owner are visiting. At eighteen months, Fientje is a teenager and is taking part in an undergraduate study addressing the question of whether dogs are altruistic. Do they want to be helpful to their owner? Are they happy for him or her to have a tasty treat when they get something themselves? ‘Often our research also has a educational angle,’ says Beerda.
Owners who are having problems with their dog cannot come to Wageningen for a walk-in clinic offering advice. ‘We devise the studies. After that, an internet survey is published that dog owners can fill in. By answering the questions, they are reporting on themselves and their dog. Next, we invite them to take part in our tests.’
Since mainly dog owners who are concerned with their dog's wellbeing respond and no reimbursement is offered, Zodiac gets a relatively large number of well-behaved, well-trained dogs. ‘To be honest, we get too few problem cases,’ confirms Beerda. ‘At the moment we are looking into whether we can get a subsidy so that we can refund at least travel expenses.’
Among others, this would benefit the PhD research for which Noa is doing her best: can owners be categorized by their dog-raising style? And is this predictive of the dog's behaviour? ‘This has been derived from human parenting styles,’ says Beerda. ‘It is known that parenting style – in particular being demanding and the level of engagement – has predictive value for the child's learning performance and social development. We wonder whether that same concept applies to the human-dog relationship. Together with students, PhD candidate Ineke van Herwijnen is currently researching whether the picture that owners have painted in the survey is correct, and how we can improve the questionnaire. For us, it is often more about the owner than the dog.’