Methods Animals Communicate with Each Other; Basics

The Different Types of Communication

Communication is present between all animals and, at a microscopic level,  all living cells.  It tends to be species-specific meaning the communication of one species often can only be fully understood by members of the same species; in some respects like people across the world speaking different languages.  Several forms of communication exist which I will broadly introduce throughout the rest of this post.  These are; Vocalisation/ Verbal communication, body language and chemical/ olfactory communication which I imagine the majority of people know little to nothing about.  Alongside this is tactile communication which is where humans/ animals communicate through touch.

 

Most people associate the word communication purely with one type; speech or verbal communication.  Speech is a type of verbal communication used by humans. Whilst speech is widely used between people and towards animals, it plays only a minor role in how non-human animals communicate.

Communication is often similar between species but may be very different

People also use non-verbal communication such as body language.  Body language consists of changes in posture, actions and facial expression.  Most people are adept at reading basic facial expressions however those with neuro-developmental conditions such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder may struggle or unable to read them.

Most animals can read facial expressions amongst their own species but cannot read those of other species which can lead to issues including fighting if two different species are housed together; something still regularly occurring with rabbits and guinea pigs.  Facial expressions between species often do bear some resemblance (though can mean very different things at times) between different species as an artefact of our evolutionary history; as at one point was communicated by Charles Darwin.

The situation between the inability for animals to read the facial expressions of other species is a bit different between dogs and people though.  Our relationship with the domesticated dog and the time we spent together throughout domestication has uniquely lead to many dogs possessing the ability to read our, and especially their owners, facial expression and body language to some degree.  This is one factor leading to the so-called “guilty expressions” that dogs appear to show when they face their owners after performing an inappropriate behaviour (such as emptying the bin or chewing up the sofa); dog’s don’t possess the ability to feel guilt, they are, instead, just displaying this behaviour out of the expectation they are in trouble based upon past experience and their owners body language +/- tone of voice.

Selective breeding may have also lead to those with more traits for this recognition being bred more, thus passing it down to their offspring.  However, the connection between humans and dogs is a very unique one and this recognition of body language is not seen among different species to the same extent.

 

Vocalisation/ Verbal Communication

Though many non-human animals vocalise especially when communicating across long distances (such as warning the rest of their herd of predators), it is usually less commonly displayed than it is between people.

 

Wolves howl to vocally communicate with others

Vocal communication is often thought of as speech but it any noise leaving the mouth of an animal.  No animals have the same complexity to this communication as humans have, even primates, and whilst some parrots appear to talk, they purely mimic the people around them and don’t understand the sounds they produce.

Some animals, especially prey species, remain very quiet such as the rabbit, whereas others have noisy calls and cries such as the dog’s bark and the wolf’s howl (which remains in a few dog breeds).  Some animals have an array of different sounds such as guinea pigs who vocalise a lot with numerous different types.

Whilst other species appear to have developed new vocalisations during domestication.  Wildcats have been observed to purr but generally not to meow.  Meowing is believed to be a vocalisation pattern cats developed, through selective breeding and learning as a kitten, to attract the owner and get them to do what they want them to.  This adaptation demonstrates that an animal’s communication can diversify to meet the situation.

 

Body Language

The most common way animals communicate with both ourselves and others.

A snarl both makes a sound and changes the look of the face to pass a communicate unhappiness to those around

Poor communication or the presence of miscommunication (possibly due to the mixing of two or more species), may cause fights to break out.  Miscommunication is often seen between the animal kingdom and ourselves; chimps for instance, “smile” when afraid.  Humans view chimpanzees as being similar to themselves and see this behaviour as a human smile and believe they are happy when the opposite is true. What we think of as a smiling chimp is one displaying a fear grimace; the chimp is scared and they feel threatened by us smiling at them.

Lop-eared rabbits have reduced body language as they are not able to freely move their ears

Body language can be subtle with just hair standing on end (piloerection) occurring either just in a particular area or over the whole body, or the movement of some whiskers or be more obvious such as a snarling dog.  Whether subtle or more obvious, the animal may be trying to communicate something of true importance and so paying attention to any body language is very important.

 

Body language can also be miscommunicated between animals of the same species.  This may be the case if an animal is, for whatever reason, isn’t adept at interpreting body language such as if they have been isolated from those of their own species.  Another reason, which is seen with dogs in particular, could be from modifications to their body.  Dogs communicate with many different parts of their body, including the position or movement of their ears and tail.  If dogs have their tails docked and/ or their ears cropped the language they can display may be affected and therefore may be misinterpreted.  Those with very long hair may also struggle as the movement of particular parts of their body may not be easily visible to others.

This dog’s hair gets in the way of seeing subtle movements of much of the body and blocks their sight too

Chemical/ Olfactory Communication

Under all different circumstances, each individual cell releases chemicals/ compounds/ hormones to interact with the surrounding cells.  The surrounding cells receive these, often as a signal, allowing the body to react appropriately to the current scenario.

Cat demonstrating the flehman response whereby they ensure pheromones pass to the vomeronasal organ

Along with cells releasing chemicals to act upon other cells, certain areas of the body release chemical signals to send messages to the surrounding animals.

 

Some of these signals may be scents, such as urine helps mark out a territory in dogs due to other dogs smelling it.  Other signals released by one animal may affect other animals but do not a smell to them; these are known as pheromones.  Different pheromones affect animals in different ways. Some calm them down whilst others help them detect when a female animal is in season (“on heat”).

The flehman response of a horse allows them to detect pheromones

Pheromones are usually detected in an organ within the nose (the vomeronasal-organ) where signals are then sent to the brain.  Different animals get pheromones into their Vomeronasal organ through different methods; dogs flick their tongue against part of their mouth whereas others wrinkle their noses up and stretch their necks really long, lifting their heads and noses high in the air.  These are known as the Flehman response.

A tapir demonstrates their flehman response

There are also some chemical signals which are neither a scent or pheromone.  One of these includes a protein released in the milk called Alpha S1-Casein (or variants of that depending on the species).  This calms down infant animals after suckling.  A synthetic version (Alpha- Casazephine, derived from Alpha-S1 casein from cows milk) is now produced as a food supplement to reduce anxiety if used for several days.

 

Cats and dogs both release pheromones, the main ones being Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP), and the Feline Facial pheromones. These, amongst others, can help them to both create territories or calm them down which can then also be used synthetically to alter behaviour in different circumstances and are available in different forms.  These will be discussed more in-depth in another post.

Suckling animals receive compounds in their mother’s milk to calm them down

The Round Up.

This is just a basic introduction to the ways in which animals communicate and is nowhere near exhaustive.  This post is just to demonstrate how complex communication is and why it is difficult to completely follow and understand.

 

I will follow this up with further posts looking at different types of communication and how these are carried out in different animals.

Fourteen Signs of Pain in Rabbits

I have commonly met owners who’ve told me that rabbits don’t feel pain.  As rabbits don’t show easily obvious signs of pain these owners completely believed this.  They believed that like people or other vocal species, rabbits in pain and act totally different which often isn’t the case.  The truth is, the signs of pain in rabbits are similar, just more subtle, than in other species.

Not only did I constantly hear this from owners but I also noticed a lack of recognition of pain amongst my colleagues in rabbits.  As a result of many vets not being able to recognise pain in rabbits I suspected they underestimated the amount of pain relief rabbits needed after injuries or  operations.

One day after being frustrated with these thoughts and after meeting another owner stating the same to me, a lightbulb shone in my head.  My brain woke up and said,

“If they don’t recognise it and there’s few studies demonstrating pain in rabbits then why not study it yourself”

A few enquiries to different universities later and, to make a long story short, my Masters Degree dissertation developed.  I spent several months reading about the recognition of pain in rabbits (amongst other species).  This was spent many many hours filming, watching and analysing video clips of rabbits who may or may not have been in pain from potentially being castrated; I say potentially, some clips were filmed before rabbits were castrated!

So, you could say detecting pain is an interest of mine, especially with my favourite rotation at vet school being Anaesthesia which included Analgesia (the posh word for painkillers!).  Some people think it’s a bit of a weird interest and that I maybe have a morbid fascination with pain.

The reality, if we are in pain we take a couple of paracetamol tablets or see a doctor for stronger painkillers.  If animals are in pain they can’t do this (well, ignoring research studies where Chickens have both normal feed and feed laced with painkillers in their pens.  Then chickens who’re in pain will likely eat the feed with painkillers in… yes I’m a geek!).

Given the choice, chickens select food with pain killers in.

How do Rabbits Show Pain?

  1. Hiding or laying more
    1. This is seen in most species
    2. Rabbits in pain tend to hide or sleep more.
    3. You may not see them at all or as much.
    4. This is to protect themselves both from predators (our pets believe there may still be one) and make sure their injuries don’t get worse.
  2. Less Active
    1. Rabbits in pain move around less as they avoid doing anything that hurts.
    2. This may not be as obvious as them stopping moving completely; many are still active at times.
    3. However, if you scare them or go to pick them up (something which most rabbits hate) painful rabbits will usually still dart away.

      Rabbits in pain eat and drink less
      Like many animals, rabbits eat and drink less when in pain
  3.  Eat and Drink Less
    1. Studies have consistently shown that rabbits in pain eat and drink less.
    2. To see if your rabbit is in pain you can just compare how much they eat and drink compared to what they usually have.
    3. If you have two rabbits it may be impossible to tell as if one rabbit eats less due to pain the other may just enjoy the extra food it has left to eat so you don’t notice.
    4. It’s not always the case, some rabbits don’t change their eating patterns at all.
    5. Also, if your rabbit stops eating there may be a reason other than pain such as stress or feeling ill.
    6. Not eating can, in itself, make a rabbit very unwell.  A rabbit’s digestive system is designed for them to eat almost constantly.  If they stop eating or eat very little this can actually stop their guts from working.  This can be life-threatening so if your rabbit stops eating for whatever reason get it checked out ASAP; sometimes even just leaving them a few hours to get checked may be fatal.
    7. An advantage to checking their food and water is that you don’t have to disturb your rabbit.  This is definitely a bonus as they don’t want to be messed with when ill or in pain.
  4. Limping
    1. If your rabbit has a sore leg they may limp.
    2. Not all rabbits that are in pain will limp, even if their legs hurt, and not all rabbits limping are in pain.  Limping rabbits may have something affecting their brain or an old injury which cause them to limp despite not causing pain.
    3. However, if your rabbit starts limping and they weren’t before it is likely they are in pain.  Just don’t rule out pain because they’re not limping.
  5. Stand differently
    1. Rabbits with bellyache may stand with their backs arched up similar to what a dog or cat may do.
  6. Move Differently
    1. Rabbits in pain, when stood, may writhe a bit.  This is often seen with belly ache where they are twisting and stretching their bodies to relieve the pain.
    2. This is not always obvious as it often is done very quickly, each time lasting only a second or two.
  7. They may sleep more
    1. Being in pain is tiring.
    2. Often they sleep more due to having less energy left
    3. This means they may be in their bed more.
    4. Rabbits may also lie with their eyes shut when in pain, even if they’re awake.
  8. They may become more aggressive
    Rabbits in pain may be aggressive
    When it pain often rabbits stay away from each other or become aggressive
    1. Rabbits often don’t want to be played with or lifted by people even when they’re not in pain.
    2. When they’re in pain this is even more likely as they don’t want people making that pain worse.
    3. To try to make sure they’re not in more pain, rabbits do all they can to stop people handling them and stop playing with other rabbits.
    4. This may mean your rabbit becomes more aggressive and may even scratch or bite especially if someone is touching a sore area.
  9. High Breathing or Heart Rate
    1. Most owners don’t constantly check their rabbit’s heart or breathing rates. But, when a rabbit is in pain, you may notice their chest rising and falling as they breathe quicker.
    2. Them breathing quicker or their heart beating faster is both a sign of pain and stress so it can be difficult to use this as a method of detecting pain.
    3. This is especially so for rabbits who become stressed when around people or if people decide to lift them to check their heart rate.  In these cases, their heart or breathing rates would rise when lifted even with no pain.
    4. A vet may notice high heart or breathing rates when examining your rabbit BUT it may be hard to tell if this is due to pain or simply stress.
  10. Changes in Grooming Habits
      1. If your rabbit is in pain it will tend to clean itself less.
      2. However, if they’re in pain in an area of the body they can get to they may lick it more.
      3. Sometimes if a rabbit has surgery and they are in pain they may remove their stitches from nibbling at the area.
  11. Screaming
    Pain in rabbits can be seen by them lying down
    Rabbits may lie down more when in pain
    1. As a rule, rabbits do not cry out when they are in pain.
    2. However, there are exceptions to every rule.  In this case, rarely and when in severe pain, a rabbit may scream out.
    3. It is unlikely that they will scream but it is heard in some cases.
    4. Sometimes rabbits can be heard making slight whimpering noises but again this is uncommon and is very quiet.
  12. Grinding Teeth
    1. This may be seen with tooth pain and, uncommonly, with gut pain.
    2. Sometimes very ill or stressed rabbit’s abdomens bloat up.  This may also be caused by certain foods. Bloating is a result of your rabbit’s digestion slowing or even stopping.
    3. This is incredibly painful and can, sometimes, cause them to grind their teeth, especially if you’re feeling over their belly.  Bloat also causes rabbits to writhe.
  13. Weight Loss
    1. Rabbits in pain over several days or longer may lose weight.
    2. Your rabbit will both eat less and use up more energy from stress and having higher heart and breathing rates.
    3. If your rabbit appears to have lost weight then it may be due to pain but there are many other causes too.
  14. Change in Facial Expression
    This rabbit is just resting rather than in pain. His ears are back but his nose is a U shape
    1. Pain causes us to screw our eyes shut and open our mouth.
    2. Many mammals do similar with pain and rabbits aren’t an exception.  Some of the signs they show are subtle but all of them together may be due to pain.
    3. Eyes Closed; rabbits in pain, even when awake, may have their eyes closed or only partially open.
    4. Tense Whiskers; their whiskers may become tense and instead of pointing outwards from their face and moving quite a lot, they may be held very close to the face, together and be held downwards
    5. Nose Changes; Rabbits normally have a U shape to their nostrils when relaxed.  When in pain, however, this alters as the bottom part of their nose is tensed causing it to become smaller and leaving their nostrils to form a V shape.  This is very subtle though
    6. Ears Closed; Rabbits normally have nice open dome-shaped ears which are help upright.  When in pain this completely changes. Their ears may be held back, sometimes lie along their backs.  Their ears also close leaving the opening very narrow.
    7. Cheeks may flatten.  This is very hard to spot.  Rabbits cheeks are usually very rounded and easy to see.  However, when they’re in pain these become tense and no longer stick out but, instead, flatten and may even curve inwards.

What Should I do If My Rabbit Is in Pain?

The first step is recognising pain.  Once you’ve noticed your rabbit may be in pain you should take them to your vet.  As rabbits stop eating when they are in pain and them notIf your rabbit stops eating you must take them to a vet straight away as not doing so could, along with the pain, make them severely unwell.

Vet checks may be scary for both you and your rabbit but they are the only way to find out exactly what is wrong and treat it.  As rabbits don’t like being handled they may find it even more stressful than other pets but if they’re in pain then getting them checked is definitely the best thing.

If your vet finds out what is wrong with your rabbit and they need medications, don’t worry the majority of thse for rabbits are liquids.  These medications can be squirted straight into their mouths and your rabbit may like the taste of some of them.  The quicker you find the cause of their pain and start their treatment, the better and the less stressed and ill they’ll become overall.

 

Quick Recap

The main signs of pain in rabbits are changes in their facial expression, an increase in their heart and rates, them eating less, wanting to be left alone, sometimes becoming aggressive, and being quiet.

If they’re in pain take them to the vet to find and treat the problem.

 

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Twelve Signs A Cat Is in Pain

Whilst working as a vet I constantly treated animals in pain.  My MSc dissertation was then on detecting pain in rabbits alongside me looking at the evidence for methods of identifying pain in other rodents.  So detecting pain is an interest of mine.  Some people think it’s a bit of a weird interest and think I have a morbid fascination with pain; the reality, animals can’t speak for themselves and making sure they are as pain-free as possible should be the top of any owner or vets priorities.

 

Cats Don’t Yelp

Usually, cats in pain don’t make a sound.  If they do the pain is excruciating and very few conditions lead to cats screaming out.

In fact cats hide pain and illness as much as they can because in the wild if they show a weakness they will not get the food they need or even be attacked.

So, when looking for pain in cats you have to look for very subtle signs.  This is the mistake owners make, they presume because their cat isn’t limping, is eating and not crying then they’re fine and don’t need treatment.

 

So what are these signs?

  1. Hiding more
    1. Cats may hide behind sofas or under the bed.  They may take themselves to a different room or hide in some bushes
    2. Like people cats want to be alone and not to be messed with when in pain so retreat to somewhere quiet that’s usually covered
    3. They may hide more near to a radiator, heater or fire as heat can often help those achy joints.
  2. Stop Jumping or won’t jump as high
    1. This is a big sign.
    2. Jumping often increases pain so they just don’t jump as high or as often and sometimes they stop jumping altogether
    3. If you notice your cat is staying in your garden all the time when usually they would’ve jumped over the fence at their first chance then the may be in pain
  3. Walking Stiffly
    1. They may walk more stiffly and slower.  Their movement tends to improve the more they move.
  4. Walking with their back more bent
    1. Their back may be arched and remains like that as they are walking
    2. This can be due to pain in their back legs, hip or spine.
  5. They may sleep more
    1. Being in pain is tiring and walking with it is more tiring
    2. Often they sleep more due to having less energy left
    3. This means they may be in their bed more.

      Cats in pain may sleep more
  6. They may become more aggressive
    1. Moving and playing hurts, even stroking may hurt
    2. Just like people, your cat won’t want people doing anything which may cause pain so they do all they can to stop this.
    3. This may mean your cat becomes more aggressive and will even scratch/ bite you or other animals especially if they are touching an area which may hurt.
  7. They may not want to eat
    1. Sometimes pain can reduce appetite
    2. Pain can also cause your cat to feel nauseous.
    3. Tooth problems may cause pain when eating.
    4. All these lead to many cats not eating as much though this is not seen in all cases; some cats will continue to eat normally when they have excruciating dental pain.
  8. Their eyes are sometimes partly closed or look squinted
    1. This can also be a sign of other illnesses such as cat flu or conjunctivitis so don’t rely on this definitely being due to pain.
    2. If your cat is on strong painkillers or has had an anaesthetic this may cause them to have squinty eyes.
    3. However, if on squinty eyes can be a sign of pain.
    4. Pain can also cause the pupils to be dilated (making them larger).
    5. As they can be a sign of several things, squinty eyes are no longer used to assess pain in cats.

      Squinted cats can be an indicator of pain but also reflects other situations
  9. They may struggle to go to the toilet or toilet outside of their litter tray.
    1. Cats in pain, depending where the pain is, may find it difficult to get into certain positions
    2. Climbing into a litter tray can be harder when in pain, especially if it’s affecting the hips or spine so they may no longer use the litter tray
    3. Squatting may cause intense pain which may prevent your cat from going
    4. Sometimes because of being in pain whenever they go in the litter tray they associate the tray itself with pain and start to toilet elsewhere in the house
    5. They may become constipated or their bladder becomes overfull due to refusing or being unable to toilet.
  10. Changes in Purring
    1. Cats purr for many reasons, not only when they are happy.
    2. Cats also purr when stressed or in pain so if you notice your cat is suddenly purring more then this may be why.
  11. Changes to Breathing or Heart Rate
    1. Now most owners don’t go checking their cat’s heart rate constantly but when cats are in pain you may notice their chest going up and down more as they breathe quicker
    2. With severe pain some cats also mouth-breathe, similar to dogs panting.  If you see this get your cat checked at the vets straight away; it may be a sign of a severe illness.
    3. If you are very observant, and depending how much hair your cat has, you may also begin to see their heart beating faster just behind where their elbow is when they’re laid on their sides.
    4. A vet is likely to pick up on this change during an examination of your cat so may then look more specifically for something causing pain.
  12. Changes to their Facial Expression
    1. Cats facial expression can change similar to when we smile or frown.
    2. When we are in pain our facial expression changes in a certain pattern that suggests we are experiencing pain.
    3. Your cat’s facial expression may also alter when they are in pain however it is quite subtle.
    4. Their ears go down and to the sides rather than being alert and on the top of their head like they normally are
    5. More subtly, the space between their nose and mouth gets smaller but protrudes further and spreads wider with pain.
    6. Facial expression may be unchanged if your cat has chronic pain (pain that lasts for days or even weeks) such as with arthritis so don’t rely on this method alone.

The first step is recognising pain.  The next step is helping your cat deal with it.  This may mean just making changes around the house such ramps onto things so they don’t have to jump.  However, it may also mean taking your pet to see a vet.

Vet checks may be scary for both you and your pet but they are the only way for you to find out exactly what is wrong and to find the best ways to treat it, not only for your furry friend but also for you.

Don’t worry, some of these treatments may not involve forcing tablets into their mouths as some are liquids but work with your vet to find out what is wrong and the best way to treat it.

If their back is sore and they are struggling with toileting sometimes buying a shallower litter tray or cutting a section out in the front so they don’t have to lift their feet as much really helps.

 

Quick Recap

It can be hard to tell when your cat is in pain.  They have evolved to shadow few signs of it.  Hints that your cat is in pain is them withdrawing themselves, acting differently (being quiet or even more aggressive), not eating, changes in their facial expression, purring more, not toileting normally or changes with how they move.

If you’re not sure take them to the vet and they can help find the problem and advise what else to do.

You may find it useful to read my blog describing the signs of pain in a dog; these are slightly different to in cats.  If you want to discuss this issue in more detail feel free to contact me.

 

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