3:25pm

Wed July 23, 2014
Animals

Cat PDA Vs. Human PDA, And Other Animal Behavior Explained

Originally published on Wed July 23, 2014 5:40 pm

From feisty kittens to pacing cheetahs, Vint Virga knows animal behavior.

A veterinarian who specializes in behavioral medicine, Virga has treated many household pets in his clinic. But for the past five years he has been working mostly with leopards, wolves, bears, zebras and other animals living in zoos and wildlife parks. He deals with such issues as appetites, anxiety and obsessive behavior.

"I'm always trying to provide every single animal I come into contact with ... with the opportunity to invent and think and discover on their own," Virga tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Virga's book, The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human, was recently published in paperback. It explains how animals demonstrate mindfulness, forgiveness and adaptability — and what we can learn from them.

Virga talks about how house cats, like lions, are more fulfilled when they forage for food — and how animals express affection differently than we might think.


Interview Highlights

On making cats forage for food

Probably the most important thing I stress to all my clients is to think about what the cat would do if they were living in nature. They would have to actually hunt for food. While we can't put out lizards and mice to run around in our house, we can portion out the food and make it more challenging and interesting for the cat to actually find.

I take my clients through a program of actually teaching their cats to forage for their food. Yeah, it isn't live, but they've got to go on the hunt or the prowl throughout the house, and the locations in which they're going to find the meal scattered about in the house ... are going to be different every day. And cats find that very stimulating and very interesting — it adds a lot of richness to their lives.

On how cats show affection differently from humans

We need to step out of what we consider are the appropriate behaviors as humans and try to put ourselves in an animal's footsteps. ... Affection is shown by being cuddly and lovey for a lot of us — not necessarily all of us — [so we often think] that our cats would want to be cuddled and loved.

Instead, a lot of cats, if you actually watch their natural behavior when they're in groups, the most affectionate cats might be sitting near each other. They might sit with their tails intertwined, rear to rear, but they're not usually face to face, nose to nose, or snuggled up next to each other.

... That says that cats feel comfort and they express their emotions in ways differently than we do. If that's true, then what behooves us [as] ... their caretakers and human family members, is to learn about what it is that cats think and feel rather than [imposing] what we think and feel upon them.

On reading animal behavior at the zoo

Usually I like to spend a fair amount of time sitting outside an animal's habitat and watching them, without trying to interact with them in any way, so I can understand as much about their behavior as possible — how they relate to other animals in their habitat, what they do in their time.

It's one thing to see a wolf, for example, pacing alongside the edge of their habitat at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon when they're starting to anticipate that their afternoon meal might be coming. It's a very different thing if I see a wolf pacing around after their morning meal, before the zoo visitors have started to enter, because they reflect very different behaviors.

One, we're talking about a wolf that's anticipating something and starting to get a little bit anxious or excited; and the other, we're talking about a wolf that even after his appetite and hunger needs have been met, he's still choosing to pace. That reflects something very different in behavior.

On how zoos have changed to improve the animals' well-being

I think the most important things that zoos have done in the past 10, 20 years, is that they [have] focused primarily on the animal's well-being. And, depending on their feedback and responses, looked at their behavior, looked at their overall happiness and contentment, and used that as the gauge for what to do for the animal.

They've also applied as much [as] science knows about the animals in nature. What that looks like is providing them with a space that's a lot more rich and full than just a place that is an exhibit. So it's really shifting from not a cage, because most zoos don't even have those anymore, but from an exhibit to a habitat. The environment is much richer and more complex rather than flat and uniform, so that we can see them.

[Zoos are] providing [animals with] opportunities to escape from view of the public — and that can be difficult for a zoo. ... Visitors complain to the zoo if they can't see the leopard, the bear or the lion. But on the other hand, if the lion doesn't have any choice of getting away from the public at times, particularly if there [are] crowds or noisy visitors, then we're taking away their sense of control over their environment.

On captive-born zoo animals

It is important to realize ... that most animals in zoos nowadays are captive-born. They are not, by and large, taken from the wild. Usually it's a number of generations that we would have to trace back to any type of direct wild animal.

... It becomes a constant effort by zoos, that is, supervised in a very strict fashion in terms of making sure that these animals are not inbred, to maintain diversity in the population, and yet what we are dealing with [are] ... animals that are to some degree different than their wild cousins.

They lose some of those instincts by ... not having predators and the pressures of the world that they're being exposed to — from habitat loss and pollution and so on. They also are gaining other traits in that they're constantly getting this affiliation or connection to humans. I'm touched by the relationships that I witness every day between keepers and the animals in their care.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When Dr. Vint Virga makes his rounds, it's at a zoo. He's a veterinarian who specializes in behavioral medicine. He's treated many pet dogs and cats, but for the past five years he's mostly been working with leopards, wolves, bears, zebras, and other animals living in zoos and wildlife parks. Typical problems he deals with involve food issues, anxiety, and obsessive behavior. Earlier in his career, he practiced veterinary general medicine in emergency rooms and his own clinic. He's the author of the book "The Soul Of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human," which was recently published in paperback. Dr. Vint Virga, welcome to FRESH AIR. So can I start by telling you something about the new cat that my husband and I adopted? Because I think...

VINT VIRGA: Please do.

GROSS: I think, like, a lot of people with cats will have this kind of issue. So, you know, we took him home, and it was so exciting to get him out of the shelter. And, he just seemed to be hungry all the time - and we realized that he probably didn't get fed that much, you know at the shelter. It was a great shelter; but nevertheless. But he would just like, meow constantly, wanting food, and you'd feed him and then - he'd meow - he'd want more food. So we've been trying to figure out what's the best way of starting to, like, regulate his diet. Is it, like, a couple of big meals a day, and then you get no more? Or there's also - a lot of people do the - I think it's called, like, free - free feeding - is that what it's called? Where there's, like, a bowl of dry food out all the time and the cat just eats when he or she wants to, and there's a finite amount of food per day, and that's you get.

VIRGA: Yes. Well, and you can imagine free feeding is probably the furthest from natural. A feral cat living on a dairy farm, or out in nature would not have a free choice of eating food whenever he or she wanted to. So what I really encourage clients to do, is to at the very least, divide their meals into a number of portions, and spread those throughout different times a day. If we have a kitty that we're dealing with that likes to get up in the middle of the night and wake the family members up early in the morning, that's particularly important to give them a meal as close to bedtime as possible, because you're giving them an option to eat during the night, and they'll probably be a tiny bit less motivated in the morning. But probably the most important things I stress to all my clients is to think about what the cat would do if they were living in nature. They would have to actually hunt for food, and while we can't put out lizards and mice to run around our house, we can portion out the food and make it more challenging, and interesting for the cat to actually find. So I take my clients through a program of actually teaching their cats to forage for their food. Yeah, it isn't live, but they've got to go out on the hunt or the prowl throughout the house, and the locations in which they're going to find the meals scattered about in the house or portioned out in the house. They're going to be different every day, and that - that - cats find that very stimulating, and very, very interesting. It adds a lot of richness to their lives.

GROSS: So like, where do you suggest hiding the food?

VIRGA: Oh, my goodness, everywhere from closets, to allowing certain shelves on a bookshelf, behind cabinets, behind the television, or entertainment center. Underneath dressers if there's enough crawlspace, inside boxes that they would actually have to either open, or inside balls that they would roll around and the food would actually drop out. Food can be put in something as simple as a - the cardboard tube inside a roll of toilet paper, and then taped up, punched with a few holes, and the cat would actually have to roll the tube around in order to get the food out.

GROSS: I guess if you're not vigilant about cleaning up all those places where you put the food, the cat might soon have real vermin to chase (laughing)?

VIRGA: (Laughing) I guess so. But if you put it in small portions, in five or six different places of the house, most people are - find that the cat is very, very thorough in terms of cleaning up everything. And the food doesn't have to be on a rug, or on the floor. It can be in a saucer, it can be in a cup, it can be in a little bowl, or; as I said before - a ball or a box.

GROSS: Do you recommend this for all cats, or just cats who are having some kind of eating problem?

VIRGA: I really recommended it for all cats. And what it is, is it's really just carrying over what I do with zoo animals over to the family situation. Within the zoo, the keepers are constantly looking for new ways to encourage the animals to invent, and explore, and interact with their environment. And consistently, and reliably, what we find is that those are the animals that live the most fulfilled lives, and seem to be the most emotionally healthy.

GROSS: So how do you make sure you're not reinforcing bad behavior? Like if your dog barks, or whines, and it wants something? Or, your cat meows and it wants something? Part of you wants to give it to them because you love your animal, and you want to make them happy. But then, you don't want to encourage them to be nagging - you know - to be nagging all the time that they want something, and meowing or barking all the time.

VIRGA: Right. So it really becomes a matter of timing. If we reinforce them, if we give them what they want - even if we don't give them what they want, and we give them just our attention - at a time right after they've done a behavior that they're hoping to get something out of, then what we're doing is reinforcing the behavior. And what instead I recommend is that we actually do our best to hold off on our instinct to respond to them, until they stop. If that behavior's really ingrained, it may take a while for them to stop. It may be just for a moment that they finally stop whining, or barking, or meowing. But at that moment, if we take the opportunity then to reinforce them with affection, or attention, or praise, or food, then what we end up doing is giving them a pretty clear message, and they figure it out pretty quickly, that - ah, so now if I'm quiet, or if I'm not demanding, whatever it is I want, that's when I'm actually going to get it.

GROSS: Do you think it's a good idea to, like, feed your animal before they're asking for it so that you're not reinforcing the meowing or the barking?

VIRGA: Yeah. Yeah, that falls in the category of preventing. And prevention is wonderful because what it does is it helps to solve the problem before it's actually happened.

GROSS: OK.

VIRGA: So that's the same thing as, for example, the cat that's active at three in the morning. One of the things you can do is put out food in several different, hidden spots in the house before you go to bed. And that gives them something to do when they wake up in the middle of the night.

GROSS: I want to ask you about children. A lot of people have pets and children. And sometimes the pets and the children get along famously; other times, they don't. And sometimes the children can actually scare the pets. And you write about an example like that where a married couple got two kittens, two sisters. And after that, they had a baby, a daughter. And eventually, one of the cats became a hermit, hid all the time. And you figured out that that had to do with the way the daughter was playing with the cats. Tell us what the problem was.

VIRGA: Well, their daughter was about two years old. And at that age, she was rather rambunctious and energetic. And she had a particular fondness for her kitties. In fact, her kitties were her favorite thing in the whole world. And if she had the - if she had her druthers, she would rather spend time playing with the cats than doing anything else. And the way in which she played was a little bit loud and boisterous and rough. And she hadn't really learned the subtleties and nuances of the signals that her kitties were saying to her - or conveying to her. So one of the cats was very tolerant and accepting of that, but the other cat became very reclusive and hid from her. What was going on was that she was just literally running in every time she saw them and screaming, kitty, kitty, kitty and chasing them throughout the house.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Perfect.

VIRGA: If you or I were a little cat and we had someone chasing after us that way, we might want to hide too.

GROSS: So what did you do to solve the problem?

VIRGA: Well, two things. I helped them to appreciate the nature of the problem. And they didn't quite appreciate how their daughter's love and enthusiasm for the kitties really was bringing about this behavior. So part of it was education. But really, the main two things we did is we gave the cat an opportunity to be with the family without hiding - but be with the family in a safe way. So what we actually gave her was safe, elevated perches that were out of their daughter's reach in the most common places in the household that the family would gather -in the eating area, in the living room and then in the daughter's bedroom. And then, the other thing we did was that we taught the daughter a game that I called Whisper Kitty. And what I actually taught her to do was instead of - taking that incredible enthusiasm she had for her kitties and instead play game of, every time she was excited to see the kitties, she would tiptoe and walk softly and slowly and then whisper to the kitties. And she caught on to this. This, to her, was a marvelous, new game. And the kitties responded dramatically in a very short timeframe.

GROSS: You know, you write in your book, impassioned cuddles and kisses are human, not traits we see in the feline world. So what does that tell us about how to express our love for our cats and what not to do?

VIRGA: I think what it tells us, with respect to our cats as well as every species, is that we need to step out of what we consider are the appropriate behaviors as humans and try to put ourselves in an animal's footsteps or an animal's shoes, so to speak. Instead of thinking that for us, affection is shown by being cuddly and lovey for a lot of us - not necessary all of us - that our cats would want to be cuddled and loved. And instead, a lot of cats, if you actually watch their natural behavior when they're in groups, the most affectionate cats might be sitting near each other. They might sit with their tails intertwined, rear-to-rear. But they're not usually face-to-face, nose-to-nose, or snuggled up next to each other a lot. That says that cats feel comfort and they express emotion, their emotions, in ways differently than we do. And if that's true, then what behooves us as being their caretakers and human family members is to learn about what it is that cats think and feel rather than superimposing what we think and feel upon them.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Vint Virga. He's a veterinarian who specializes in behavioral medicine. He works with pets as well as zoo animals. And he's the author of the book "The Soul Of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Vint Virga, a veterinarian who specializes in behavioral medicine. In addition to treating cats and dogs, he consults with zoos and wildlife parks on the care and feeding of animals. So you knew when you were young that you wanted to work with animals. You always loved animals, you had cats and dogs as a child - but you're working with zoo animals now and you - you didn't have lions, and tigers, and giraffes, and elephants as a child. How do you learn about the behavior of so many different kinds of animals that there's no - no way you could have been really exposed to outside of visiting them in zoos when you were - you know, before you became a veterinarian?

VIRGA: Yes well, that's a really good question. When I - when I started in my behavioral medicine residencies at Cornell - part of behavioral medicine residency requires that you spent time with zoo animals. But I came out of that residency program thinking, oh boy how am I going to be able to work with zoo animals. I - I'll stick to what I feel is most comfortable and what I know best. However, when I got an opportunity to see a polar bear at a zoo fairly early on in my behavioral part of my crew, all I could do was take what I knew about behavior of animals in general and - and take it to the polar bear's side to try to figure what was going on with that particular bear. And as I got invited to start visiting more and more animals at zoos, I started to see some rather distinctive patterns and - and that is that they're definitely differences between giraffe behavior and - and leopard behavior - and between wolf behavior and tortoise behavior - but at the same time there're a lot more commonalities than - than we would actually think exists. I can't even to this day tell you that I - I can know what - what I'm going to see when I'm dealing with species that I haven't dealt with. But it's a matter of taking what I do know and then taking the time to - to really observe and listen and - and then put the two together to try to understand what's going on for that animal.

GROSS: When you're making the rounds at a zoo what do you do? What are you looking for?

VIRGA: Well, what I love to do if I had my druthers is - is come before anybody else at the zoo. Because I can usually see the animal's behavior a whole lot better than before - than when visitors are starting to come into the zoo. But usually I like to spend a fair amount of time sitting outside an animal's habitat and watching them, without trying to interact with them in any way, so I can understand as much about the behavior as possible - how they relate to other animals in their habitat, how - what they do in their time. It's one thing to see a wolf for example pacing outside - pacing alongside the edge their habitat at about three o'clock in the afternoon when they're starting to anticipate that their afternoon meal might be coming. And it's a very different thing if I see a - a wolf pace around after their morning meal before the zoo visitors have started to enter because they - they reflect very different behaviors. One we're talking about a wolf that's - that's anticipating something and starting to get a little bit anxious or excited. And the other were talking about a wolf that even after his appetite and hunger needs have been met, he still is choosing to pace. That reflects something very different in behavior.

GROSS: So you've listened to a lot of wolves howl and try to understand what they're saying to each other. What can you tell us about what you've learned about how wolves communicate through howling?

VIRGA: Well, I think that we think of wolves communicating - if you think of a how, if you try to translate it into words - we can't take animals, including wolves' signals, and try to translate them into sentences. But what we can see for example with wolf howls, is that they vary in pitch, and frequency, and tenor and duration, and they're used between wolf groups to communicate when - when individuals of a pack will - will separate to go on their nighttime hunt - they use it as a way to communicate with each other where they're located, and also where to check in with each other, and to also to reunite at the end of the day.

GROSS: Something you wrote in your book leads me to believe that you are good at mimicking some kinds of meows, and understanding some of the variations in meaning that accompany it.

VIRGA: Well - well, yes. So there's been all sorts of scientific studies that have looked at cat vocalizations and tried to categorize them. And I think in general though, what I tell people is you know better frankly than anyone. When your cat does certain vocalizations what they're - what they're saying to you - if there chirping or meowing in a certain way, it's probably because they want your attention. You notice a very different purring type of sound oftentimes when they're content and they are laying on your lap. But to dissect it and break it down into individual vocalizations, while it can be useful, I also don't know how practical it is in the real world.

GROSS: Does this mean I'm not going to get you to meow.

VIRGA: (Laughing) If you really want me to, I'll meow.

GROSS: I really want you to.

VIRGA: (Laughing) OK. Well, let's see for example I could give an example of our two Norwegian Forest Cats. They're very, very different terms of their vocalization. Our - our male is very quiet - he's a Norwegian Forest cat so is rather big, he's around 16 pounds, which is - which is a big but not heavy size - not overweight size for a Norwegian Forest cat. And when he wants attention he'll go (imitating cat) budururrr, and do little tiny chirps. If he is distressed about something - if I were for example come over and go Fritz, I haven't seen you in forever, I've been on a trip for a week, and I come up to him and instead of stroking him, which I know he likes, I just have to give that little human hug and - and he doesn't like it he most likely is going to go [imitation of cat noise] orrrerrrrow, and you know, run away. Our little girl on the other hand, Clara, when she wants attention she almost sounds a little bit like a yowling Siamese and she will sometimes be up in the - especially if I have been writing for hours and ignoring them, and I'm at my desk, she will go just out of reach in the hallway to where I can't see here and then start going (imitating cat) rowwww, rowwww, rowwww - and she knows very effectively that I'm not going to sit at my desk and - and ignore her. And she does it on purpose that she's just out of sight because she knows if she were in sight, that it wouldn't be nearly as effective at getting my attention. And sure enough I'll put - I'll put down my pen and step away from my desk and go and find her and - which is exactly of course, what I'm not supposed to be doing. Because what am I doing? Reinforcing the attention.

GROSS: I was going to point that out.

VIRGA: Yeah, so what I tend to do, Terry, is instead what I - what I like to do if I'm smart and really want to get work done, is I will prevent it as you'd said earlier and give them - give her a totally different part of the house to - to explore, to investigate - give her things to do, give her puzzle boxes and - and hide food and give her a little cat bed that I put maybe on the second or third bookshelf along with some sprinkled catnip. And - and that'll keep her busy until she's exhausted and - and she'll - she'll happily rest and sleep while I work on my - my writing.

GROSS: What's a puzzle box?

VIRGA: And puzzle box is like what I was talking about earlier - where you take just a simple cardboard box and you can fill it with shredded paper, or you can fill it with nothing other than food itself. But usually you're putting - what I put in there is either a scent or two like - like cinnamon and clove can be really interesting to cats - or catnip. Or I can put some - some freshly cut catnip branches. Matatabi's another plant that our kitty cats like - that's Japanese Silverthorne I think it's called. Or we can put just - I can just put food - the regular cat food Kibble, or Kibble mixed with a few pieces of freeze-dried fish or chicken. And then the box is - is not completely sealed, but sealed enough that it her a little while to get inside of it - which is just what I would do with a leopard or a lion

GROSS: Dr. Vint Virgo will be back in the second half of the show. He's the author of "The Soul Of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Vint Virga, a veterinarian who specializes in behavioral medicine. Although he still treats cats and dogs, for the past five years he's worked mostly with animals in zoos and wildlife parks. Virga is the author of the book "The Soul Of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human." I would imagine that the behavioral disorders that you've seen in a lot of zoo animals have to do with the fact that they're in captivity. What are some of the things that zoos have successfully done to make the zoo environment a little closer to the animal's natural environment that you think - things that you think have helped in terms of the behavior of the animals?

VIRGA: I think the most important things that zoos have done in the past 10, 20 years, is that they've focus primarily on the animal's well-being and depending upon their feedback and responses, looked at their behavior, looked at their overall happiness and contentment and used that as the gauge for what's going - what to do for the animal. And then, they've also applied as much as science knows about the animals in nature. So what that looks like is providing them with a space that's a lot more rich and full than just a place that is an exhibit. So it's really shifting from - not a cage because most zoos don't even have those anymore - but shifting from an exhibit to a habitat where the environment is much richer and more complex, rather than flat and uniform so that we can see them - providing them opportunities to escape from view of the public. And that can be difficult for a zoo in that visitors complain to the zoo if they can't see the leopard or the bear or the lion. But on the other hand, if the lion doesn't have any choice of getting away from the public at times, particularly if there's crowds or noisy visitors, then we're taking away their sense of control of the environment. So a key part of what zoos do nowadays is give the animal control and choice in their environment by making it a lot richer and fuller and more complex. And then the third thing is environmental enrichment, like we were talking about with cats earlier, is applied to every single animal I work with.

GROSS: So that there's things for them to do - puzzles...They have to hunt for their food.

VIRGA: Right. The key that I'm always trying to provide every single animal I come into contact with is the opportunity to invent and think and discover on their own and to provide them with a richness of opportunities to explore their world and interact with it in a entirely new way.

GROSS: Do you feel more positively disposed towards zoos than you used to when you started in veterinary medicine?

VIRGA: Absolutely. I used to avoid zoos with a passion. And even when I made the decision that I wanted to try to do a little bit of work in zoos, it was very painful and difficult for me. But I also felt like if I didn't do what I could within the structure of zoos as they existed, they weren't going to go away. So the best thing I could do was do what I could within the organization, within the structure of what existed, to try to make things better for the individual animal.

GROSS: And you point out that zoos actually have a very important place, now, in the lives of endangered species 'cause a lot of endangered species basically have no natural habitat anymore. And the zoos, at least, can try to reproduce some of that habitat.

VIRGA: Yeah. And that applies to every - to almost every species out there. If we look at elephants - I don't know what the latest numbers are. But they're devastating, the number of elephants that are in Africa compared to what there were 10 years ago. Those numbers, if we look at them, for a wide number of species out there, reflect a changing world where the habitats are being compromised. Pollution is taking away the quality of life of these animals, encroachment of humans on their environments and poaching, hunting, are all taking away the world of these animals. And zoos can actually be looked at, in my mind, as havens, where at least we're doing the best we can for at least some of the individuals to try to turn around and then bring awareness to those species out there that most desperately need it.

GROSS: Do you think the animals are changing in the sense that they're getting acclimated to humans? You know, like lions and tigers and giraffes and elephants that wouldn't necessarily be around humans are around people all the time in zoos - the zookeepers as well as the crowds who come to see them. So do you think that that changes the animal, or that the animal becomes more comprehending of humans and maybe more friendly?

VIRGA: Yes, I think so. It's important to realize, too, that most animals in zoos nowadays are captive-born. They're not, by far and large, taken from the wild. And usually it's a number of generations that we would have to trace back to any type of direct wild animal that was originally captured many generations ago. And so it becomes a constant effort by zoos that is supervised in a very strict fashion in terms of making sure that these animals are not inbred, to maintain diversity in the population. And yet, what we are dealing with, very honestly, are animals that are, to some degree, than their wild cousins. And they lose some of those instincts by constantly not having predators and the pressures of the world that they're being exposed to from habitat loss and pollution and so on. But they also are gaining other traits in that they're constantly getting this affiliation or connection to humans. And I'm touched by the relationships that I witness every day between keepers and the animals and their care, even in some of the most - what would be thought to be solitary, unsocial animals.

GROSS: Like?

VIRGA: Like something like a takin, that in nature, I think, would keep away from humans as much as possible - or a leopard or lion or tiger. Bears - the bears that I work with are very, very oriented towards the keepers and definitely look forward to seeing them every day. They add a richness, and they add social interaction.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Vint Virga. He's a doctor of veterinary medicine who specializes in behavior medicine. And he's the author of the new book "The Soul Of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human." Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is Vint Virga. He's a veterinarian who specializes in behavioral medicine and he's the author of the new book "The Soul Of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human" and he now works mostly with animals in zoos although he continues to have the cat and dog patients that he had before he spent more time in zoos. So give us an example of a pet or a zoo animal in which you seen repetitive behavior and you had to diagnose what the problem was and tried to treat it?

VIRGA: An example would be a Doberman retriever I saw a number of years ago and he would get up early in the morning and he would sit in his living room of this house and start to watch for reflections or lights on the wall even though there weren't any lights on the wall and as time progressed over the day he would continue to chase after what appeared to be imaginary objects. We couldn't see any reflections or any images or any insects or bugs that he was changing after. What it all started out with was, actually, a laser pen that one of the children in the house was playing with and he became so intent and focused on the laser pen that he would spend a good part of his day chasing after the laser. Then when the laser was not provided he started finding other things that didn't exist to chase after.

GROSS: Oh, you're scaring me. I use one of those laser toys with my cat.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Am I going to drive her crazy?

VIRGA: (Laughing) No.

GROSS: Make her obsessive?

VIRGA: In fact, it's very interesting because cats don't seem to show the pre-disposition that dogs do towards developing a compulsive response to the laser pen. They seem to be fully entertained by it. So that's a big difference between canids and felids with respect to that particular behavior.

GROSS: OK, so you realize that playing with this laser pen caused, you know, repetitive compulsive behavior on the part of this Doberman. What did you do?

VIRGA: Well, the first thing was to try to prevent any further images, laser pens, reflections from them feeding on the behavior, contributing to the behavior. When we're dealing with compulsive behaviors with animals, as is the case with many people, we end up relying upon medication. Usually training, learning, behavioral conditioning is not sufficient when a behavior reaches the degree of becoming compulsive. So what I did with this particular dog is I put her on an anti-anxiety medication and we were able then by reducing her anxiety level to start giving her other activities that she could spend other time enjoying rather than chasing after imaginary objects and it worked very effectively.

GROSS: Were you able to eventually take a dog off the medication?

VIRGA: Yes, we were. There are a couple of times that the behavior started to pop up again and by putting her on a low dose and then weaning her off again we were able to manage the behavior really effectively.

GROSS: You've had your share of cats and dogs in your life. What's the worst behavioral disorder you've had with one of your own pets and that you've tried to treat?

VIRGA: Oh my goodness. Well, Katie, our Labrador retriever, developed separation anxiety at a very young age. She, like a lot of dogs with separation anxiety, was at risk - I think greater risk of separation anxiety because of her background of having had previous owner and then been through really dramatic experience. The way in which Katie's separation anxiety manifested is she would destroy the house while she was left alone by three four years of age she was causing massive damage which as a young veterinarian out of vet school that was a lot to deal with especially when I didn't even own in my own home. We'd come home and we'd find carpets torn and shredded. We'd find poop and pee - poop smeared around the house, puddles of pee in all sorts of places. But aside from all that, those manifestations that we saw, think of what Katie must've been going through to cause that type of damage? She was a typical Labrador in terms of orientation towards people, very people oriented and also fairly energetic. But she never caused destruction if she wasn't left alone and before the separation anxiety really started happening she never caused any type of destruction.

GROSS: How did you deal with it?

VIRGA: Medication was really the primary answer for her. Alleviating her anxiety to the point that then we could give her other things focus other than when we were leaving her and then it was a process. Once I was able to alleviate her anxiety of helping her to give other things to do. Katie's favorite activities were then left for when we would leave at the beginning of the day to go to work in our respective practices - my wife and I.

GROSS: And did it get to the point where you could take her off the medication?

VIRGA: We tried twice with Katie and both times she had relapses so she was one of those dogs that I was never able to get medication completely.

GROSS: But you're OK with that?

VIRGA: Well, look at the quality of her life.

GROSS: Exactly right.

VIRGA: Yeah, so she ended up being on medication all the way pretty much until she was an old, old dog and wasn't able to get around very well.

GROSS: So my understanding is most vet behaviors now think that positive reinforcement is much more effective and humane than negative reinforcement when you're trying to shape behavior or, you know, prevent an animal from doing something bad.

VIRGA: Universally there's 60 some odd behaviorists in North America and every single one of us would say wholeheartedly that that is true. That isn't just in the veterinary behavior community. Most of the members of the zoo community have come to realize, a number of years ago, that the best way we can shape and change an animal's behavior is by encouraging and reinforcing behaviors that we want and not reinforcing behaviors that we don't want to encourage.

GROSS: So one of our producers has two new kittens, very adorable very lively, but they're from the same litter and they just wrestle with each other and bite each other all the time and now they're starting to do that to the family too - to the family of humans - and they're scratching them and, you know, chewing on them. So what's a good way of getting them to like calm down and stop doing that?

VIRGA: And how old are the kittens?

GROSS: Ten months.

VIRGA: Ten months. OK, so they're still really young. So what I would do with when they're starting to direct any type of attention's to people that's when I would just get up and walk away. I think you can count on the cats at that age not being injured if you were to literally just get up off the sofa and stand if they're on top of your lap. If you're standing and coming into house if you're at a meal and wherever you are the best thing I would say to her is that you should if you're standing and coming to the house if you had a meal and wherever you are the best thing I would say to her is that you should literally just get up and walk away from them so that you're not reinforcing the behavior. And you're also signaling them because they're orienting towards you they're wanting a response from you. You're signaling to them that that is not a behavior that you really want to participate in. On the other hand, whenever they're calm and quiet and acting appropriately, that's the time to lavish attention and praise but not so much that gets them all excited. Some of this they're most likely, very most likely going to outgrow 'cause they're just - they're teenagers at this point, preteens really. So they're full of energy and rambunctious. I would encourage her not to get involved with any conflicts between them unless they become serious and if so, give me a call because chances are they're going to work it out themselves and they will scratch or a little bite here and there is going to be better for them to understand their own limits or the other's limits rather than us trying to inter of the fear and say don't do this. Also if we interfere, all we're doing is getting involved in a behavior that then they're just going to turn around and direct towards us.

GROSS: So a water gun can be pretty effective in the short term of getting away from you?

VIRGA: Well, I don't know I see a lot of kitties that habituate to water guns so if you really need to do something aversive I think a compressed air canister, you know, the type you would use to a camera or a computer - not directed at them just sprayed in a cupped hand. The hissing sound will usually send most cats running. And at least what I like about that its not directional. A squirt gun will be perceived by most cats as being from you. What we'd rather have is that God or the universe anytime something like that anytime I do the behavior suddenly lets out this hissing sound that I don't like.

GROSS: So here's a question for you. I was looking at your picture, you know, the author photo on the back of the book and you're wearing what looks like a leather jacket with a fur collar and I was wondering how you feel about leather and fur or is it faux leather and faux fur.

VIRGA: It's actually faux.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What they now call vegan leather?

(LAUGHTER)

VIRGA: Yeah. Yeah, which of course raises its own issues 'cause I'm sure it's made from petro-chemicals and everything else but, you know, it's like yeah, there's trade-offs. Yeah, I'm a vegetarian. Yeah, I was raised as a meat eater in undergraduate years I was actually an animal science major where I took other people to the slaughterhouse as a lab assistant so I'm very familiar with the animal production industry. You know, there's choices we make day-to-day and I don't think there's right or wrong personally about it I think the thing I would wish for is that everybody brought up mindfulness to what they're doing instead of just if you love steak and you want to continue eating steak at least recognize that there was a cow whose life was given up, basically, so you could eat the steak and the same thing is true for leather.

GROSS: What did you do at the slaughterhouse?

VIRGA: Well, I used to accompany the labs and help the teaching assistant with moving students through the labs and what we taught was what's actually involved with the slaughter of animals from moving them to the stockyard to actually being killed to them - how the body is then processed into what we would identify them as steaks and ribs and the bacon and so forth. And that type of reality is not something that's easy to shake or let go of. That type of familiarity with what's going on. So all I encourage people to do is just be aware and then from that, you know, make choices that feel right to them.

GROSS: Well, Vint Verga, thank you so much for talking with us it's really been interesting. I really appreciate it.

VIRGA: Oh, thank you very much for having me.

GROSS: Dr. Vint Virga is the author of the new book "The Soul Of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, John Powers reviews the new 50th anniversary restoration of the Beetles film, "A Hard Day's Night." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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