New book looks at the funnier side of vet experiences

Pete Wedderburn has seen it all as a vet — from the majestic to the sublime. He draws from a wealth of experience to answer questions in his new book, Pet Subjects. Here he takes on the fascinating issues around pet vocalisations

New book looks at the funnier side of vet experiences

Pets are experts in non-verbal communication, but there are times when they resort to the use of their voice boxes in their efforts to impart messages to the humans around them. Here’s a selection of queries about vocalising pets that I’ve dealt with over the years.

We have adopted a rescue petit basset griffon Vendéen who came to us in very poor condition. He is now a handsome specimen, with most of his problems sorted except for his howling. This generally starts at around 4am when he will howl for one to two minutes. He then howls intermittently till 8am, and he’s quiet for the rest of the day. We are increasingly desperate for a full night’s sleep. Can you please advise us?

Some dogs are prone to howling, either as a call for attention or as an announcement that something is happening. Your dog seems to be howling for both of these reasons. You should do all that you can to make his environment as comforting as possible, including putting on a radio, with classical music playing, in the background, and plugging in an Adaptil diffuser to release calming pheromones around his bed. You should talk to your vet about giving him a mild sedative last thing at night, so that he has a deeper, longer-lasting sleep.

Remember that any kind of accidental reinforcement on your part may maintain this behaviour. Talking to him, touching him, letting him out, or giving him any other positive experience will encourage him to keep howling, even if you just do it occasionally.

I thought that cats only purred when they were contented, but Roly, my neutered ginger tom, purrs almost continually, even when he’s under stress. The latest example was at the vet: Roly was anxious, trying to jump off the table, but he continued to purr so loudly that the vet couldn’t hear his heart with the stethoscope. Why do cats purr and are there any tricks for stopping him from purring (e.g. for his next heart check-up)?

A cat’s purr is not just about contentment. Cat experts say that the purr happens when ‘positive social interaction is taking place or when it’s desired’.

I’ve also heard it described as happening when a cat has a friend, or needs a friend. Cats purr in all sorts of situations.

The classical example may be a contented cat curled up on your lap, but I’ve seen cats purring even when they’re in pain, after being injured. I have my own trick for stopping cats purring when trying to listen to their heart and lungs: if a tap in the sink is turned on, most cats stop purring for a few minutes while looking at, and listening to, the running water.

Our five-year-old Siamese cat roars at us continuously. There are times when we have to put him out of the room so that we can have a normal conversation. What can we do to shut him up?

Siamese cats often have loud voices that seem to reach the precise pitch designed to be most annoying to humans.

I’d suggest that you get him checked by your vet to make sure that he doesn’t have any underlying disease (e.g. high blood pressure can cause cats to scream like banshees). Once you know he’s healthy, try to enrich his environment as much as possible. Give him boxes or bags to explore, toys that release food gradually, and if he enjoys catnip, indulge him with it.

Try different toys to entertain him; the idea is to use up his energy with physical activity rather than miaowing.

A Feliway pheromone diffuser will help him feel more relaxed, and as a final resort, you may wish to talk to your vet about calming medication for a period while you teach him quieter, more social habits.

When I listen to certain types of music (particularly soprano singing), my current dog (a five-year-old German shepherd bitch) starts howling loudly. She continues to do so until I turn off or change the music. None of my previous dogs has behaved in this way. I would like to know why she howls and if she’s distressed by the music pitch.

Howling is a natural communication method for dogs; the sound carries further than barks or growls. It’s how dogs talk to each other over longer distances, to pass on messages to each other, or to summon the pack together.

No one knows why some dogs howl more than others. It just seems to be a peculiarity of some individuals. Howling doesn’t mean that a dog is upset in any way, although it’s true that dogs do sometimes howl when distressed (e.g. some dogs with separation anxiety howl when left on their own).

I suspect that if your dog strongly disliked the music, she’d try to leave the room. It’s more likely that the soprano is hitting notes that remind your dog of another dog howling, and she’s joining in joyfully. It’s a bit like a human singing along to a favourite song on the radio and it’s nothing to worry about at all.

Sense and sensibilities

Animals share the same senses as humans, with the proviso that they have greater or lesser sensitivity in some ways. And just as we can suffer from issues relating to our senses (such as deafness and blindness), so can pets. Here are some examples from readers who’ve written to me at The Telegraph.

Our cocker spaniel Freddie, is absolutely mesmerised by wood-burning stoves. He will happily stare for hours at the glass doors with tail wagging, particularly when they are not burning. We joke that they are his surrogate television. What is he seeing and what could the fascination be?

It is fascinating to try to work out how our pets perceive the world. I am waiting with eager anticipation for some computer buff to invent a virtual simulation of the way our pets experience life. Smells would be much stronger, sound would be louder and over a wider frequency range, and vision would be less detailed and less colourful. To understand Freddie’s behaviour, perhaps you should get down on all fours, and try to imagine a ‘dog’s view’ of the stove.

There may be an interesting smell, and when he looks in the glass, he may see a distorted reflection that he finds intriguing in some way. When the stove is burning, Freddie will hear a range of crackly sounds, and perhaps when it is not in action, he may be curious about the absence of sounds. Many dogs develop minor obsessions about interesting objects. Sticks, stones or cats are a more common focus of attention, and I suspect Freddie’s ‘television’ is a unique and harmless idiosyncrasy.

I heard about a man who gave a sleeping dog a fright by bursting a paper bag beside her head. The following day, the man was snoozing in his armchair, and the dog crept up to him, then barked loudly in his ear. People watching were convinced that the dog was quietly laughing as she walked away from the startled man. Do animals have a sense of humour?

It’s easy to anthropomorphise, presuming that when animals display certain behaviour, they have human-type thoughts going through their heads.

We know that this is often not the case, with animals lacking the type of self-awareness and complex thought processes that humans experience. At the same time, it’s arrogant for us humans to presume that we’re the only living creatures to enjoy a wide range of emotions including sadness, joy and humour. The truth is that, in the absence of language, we just don’t know what goes on inside animals’ minds. But you just need to watch dogs playing with each other, or have a cat sitting on your keyboard when you’re trying to type, to realise that animals do find some things funny, just as we do.

  • Pet Wedderburn has 25 years’ veterinary experience conmbined with 10 years at the Daily Telegraph answering readers’ questions. He has a weekly slot on TV3 Am and is a regular on the Pat Kenny show on Newstalk. His book, Pet Subjects is out today, published by Aurum Press. €15.

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