Pets do strange things. At least it may seem so to their humans. Scientists who study animal behavior say that these traits often make perfect sense for pets. This behavior is often a recent incarnation of her evolutionary roots, and is also based on her existing bonds with humans.
“These behaviors weren’t invented right away,” says Carlo Siracusa, MD, associate professor of clinical behavioral medicine at the University of Pennsylvania College of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s an evolution of the behavior of their ancestors who are adapted to their new lives as pets now that they’re living with humans.”
However, dogs can also learn from humans, just as children learn from adults—in fact, oftentimes, they learn better than children. “If you show kids how to do something and give them unnecessary steps, kids will imitate it,” says Angie Johnston, director of the Canine Cognition Center and Social Learning Lab at Boston College. “But once dogs figure out how to do it, they stop unnecessary steps. Dogs figure out faster than children what the end game is.”
However, their old instincts still remained. Dogs, for example, often “make their beds”—as humans describe it—by scribbling on blankets, sheets, or dog beds, and then turning over several times before settling down, a habit that likely comes from an ancient instinct to create a safe, cozy place to sleep. .
Send us pictures of your quirky pets
“Think about where animals sleep in nature,” says Evan McClain, director of the Arizona Center for Canine Cognition at the University of Arizona. “They sit on a space before they lie down in it.”
They also sometimes rotate before they exit, which some researchers attribute to trying to align with the Earth’s magnetic field, specifically the north-south axis. Not every scientist is convinced. “It’s still not clear what’s going on here,” says Sarah Elizabeth Bewser, director of the Thinking Dog Center at CUNY Hunter College. “There is a lot of work to be done.”
Sometimes dogs will claw the floor after a bowel movement. (Tip: Wait a few seconds before bending down to pick up their waste to avoid hitting it with flying debris.) They don’t bury their feces.
“They put scent into those areas,” McClain says, which might explain how picky they are at the defecation spot. “They’re looking for the best part of town to put up a billboard. They want a good place to advertise. Scratching makes a mess of the ground to get attention. It’s almost like painting a picture with a big red marker around it.”
The mark is for other dogs, another quirk they inherited from wolves, he says. “It’s very likely that marking the area is one of the functions of this communication, but there’s a lot of other information that may be encoded in smells that we don’t understand as 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 their scent signatures.”
On the other hand, cats often bury their excrement. “They cover their tracks,” says Monique O’Dell, director of the Human-Animal Interaction Laboratory at Oregon State University. “This could be the modern version of staying out of the public eye.”
Some of these traits derive from cats’ wild origins, says Mikel Delgado, founder of Feline Minds, a behavioral consulting service for cats in Sacramento.
“Cats are very predatory, they’re naturally active at dawn and dusk, they’re in the middle of the food chain – whether they’re hunting or stalking – with some natural behaviors, like scratching, and we can’t train that from them,” she says.
Scientists are finding that if you think cats are antisocial, you probably are
Experts also insist that cats’ reputation as socially isolated is undeserved. They have facial scent glands, says Christine Vitale, assistant professor of animal health and behavior at Unity College, and when head-butting their human, it’s likely they’re depositing secretions to mark their social partners.
“Kneading” is what kittens do to their mothers when nursing to stimulate milk production. Adult cats may “knead” humans when they are feeling relaxed or when they are trying to self-soothe. (Tip: Keep their nails trimmed.)
“It’s like thumb sucking in young children,” O’Dell says.
Your dog is manipulating you, but not accepting you
While dogs share many behaviors inherited from wolves, they have also evolved a few of their own, for example, “little dog eyes”, the innocent look that humans are powerless to resist.
“They want to be in touch with us,” says Jeffrey Stevens, director of the Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dogs have evolved specific muscles around their eyes to manipulate humans. They look at us that way, and it changes our behavior.”
Like wolves, dogs also love to lick faces. Humans think their pet accepts them. Sorry, they are not.
“It’s the way wolfdogs get food from their parents’ mouths,” McClain says. “It can also be a sign of submission. When a low-ranking individual approaches a higher-ranking individual, he drops to a real low and licks the dominant person to say, ‘I am not a threat to you.’”
There are some behaviors that researchers can’t explain, such as “Zoomies,” the term often used to describe the frantic and seemingly random movement of a dog, potentially a release of energy.
“My dog runs in crazy frantic circles with her mouth open, her tongue out, her ears back, her butt up, and if you mess with her while she’s doing it, she gets even more hyper,” Byosiere says. “She’s getting something out of her system and she can’t focus until she does this. But we don’t have any knowledge on that.”
One of Johnston’s three dogs, she says, “dances.” “When excited, he taps his front feet, then hops on all four feet and spins in a circle in midair,” she says. “He does this when he’s excited or happy. I don’t know where it comes from.”
Smell can be a great stimulant
For Bella, the dog who preferred Amazon boxes over others, the explanation seems to be her great success at sniffing out the snacks that contain them: She sniffed the protein bars in Amazon packaging. After making her way inside, she ate almost all of it, except for the few she had stuffed behind the sofa cushions for emergencies.
“She was very sensitive about it,” says Jeffrey Levy, a professor of health management and policy at the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University who is one of Bella’s employees. “She never eats wrappers.”
Apparently Little Pet, the sock-addicted cat, was also driven by smell.
“Many animals carry socks and shoes,” O’Dell says. “Humans produce odors on the bottoms of their feet, so if you want to get close to a human, there is no such thing as a stinky sock.”
That rings true for Cathy Miller, Little Pete’s human companion and acupressure practitioner who lives in Boulder, Colorado. Miller had to warn guests to “compress their luggage at night,” she said. “We were just glad her fascination wasn’t with panties.”
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