Newsletter October 2016

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 October 2016

What's New?

Please help us welcome Professor Jennifer Celli, the newest member of our faculty at the Animal Behavior Institute. Jennifer Celli is a professor in our Animal Assisted Therapy program; she brings a wealth of experience to the program as a licensed professional counselor. Jennifer specializes in dialectic behavior therapy and regularly incorporates animal assisted therapy into her practice. She is also certified as a Mental Health Professional through EAGALA, the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. Read more about Professor Celli, her background, and her interests. 


"Gift" Giving in Cats

Imagine sitting down to your birthday party and opening the first gift, only to find a dead rat – yuck! Yet if you own a cat that roams the outdoors, you’ve probably received a gift like this at some point. Many cats bring these unwanted presents from the outdoors, much to the owner’s disgust. Why do cats do this? Cats are natural hunters, yet many people wonder why cats feel the need to kill prey when they have plenty of cat food at home. This seems like a puzzling behavior; there are several theories on why our kitties insist on attacking small animals and bringing them into your home.

One explanation is that your cat thinks you need a little extra help hunting your own prey. When feral cats are able to obtain more food than they need to eat, they sometimes bring extra prey back to other members of the colony, specifically juveniles, kittens, and nursing mothers. If your cat is bringing you a dead bird or mouse, he might simply believe you can use a little help obtaining your own food.

Alternatively, your pet may be sharing his prey to thank you for feeding him or simply to share his successful hunt with you. Cats may also share prey to acknowledge that another cat is a member of their social group. If this is the case, paying more attention to your cat when he offers you presents is actually encouraging the behavior. If you want it to stop, you should stop acknowledging the act or giving a strong reaction to the gift.

cat with mouseSpayed female cats are the most likely cats to bring gifts to their owners. In the wild, cat mothers teach their young how to eat their food by bringing home dead or injured prey. Because domestic cats do not have young to pass on their wisdom to, they will often substitute their owners, who represent their family. Because cats have (hopefully!) never seen you kill and eat a bird or rodent, they may assume you do not know how to fend for yourself.  

Some theorize that cats do not have any reason for this behavior other than the fact that they have natural hunting instincts that they use in the wild. Cats were first domesticated over 10,000 years ago, and cats in the U.S. kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds and between 6.3 and 22.3 billion small mammals every year. No matter how much we cuddle them, dress them up, and feed them fancy cat food, we cannot take away their natural survival instincts.

How cats use their whiskers to stalk prey

If this behavior continues, and still bothers you, try to either keep your cat indoors, or put a bell on his collar so that it is more difficult for him to catch prey. If this doesn’t work, you can try to fulfill your cat’s desire to hunt with puzzle toys or fishing pole toys that your cat can chase and grab. If he still brings you presents, offer him a catnip-stuffed toy in return and dispose of the gift. This will hopefully get your cat to bring the catnip toy instead. Remember that gift giving is a natural cat behavior, but it can be reduced with patience and time. 

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Crazy Bones: Should your dog really be chewing bones? 

As you’re hanging up your skeletons this Halloween, what bones are you feeding your dog? The answer is more important than you think. According to the FDA, the iconic tradition of dogs eating bones can be dangerous – or even deadly. Your dog’s ancestors ate and killed wild animals, but that doesn’t mean your modern pooch can eat with the same abandon.

Giving your dog bones from whatever you are cooking, no matter the size of the bone, is always risky. Cooked bones are especially dangerous because after being cooked, they become more brittle. This increases the likelihood that they will splinter and cause internal injury to your dog. In addition, by chewing on a cooked bone, a dog can break his teeth, injure his mouth or tongue, or even get the bone caught on his lower jaw, causing him fear and pain. Furthermore, the bone can get caught in, or puncture, the esophagus, windpipe, stomach or intestines. All of these would probably require emergency surgery. The problems continue on the other end. Dogs can experience constipation and painful defecation if the bone fragments are scraping along the inside of his body, causing bleeding and pain.

dog with boneRaw, uncooked bones, on the other hand, can pose less of a problem. Recreational bones can be safe and enjoyable for your dog. These are the big chunks of beef or bison femur or hip bones filled with marrow. They aren’t usually intended as a nutritional aid, as they are designed to be gnawed on, not chewed up or swallowed. These bones provide mental stimulation and are great for a dog’s oral health.

If you do feed your dog a raw bone, make sure to supervise him closely. Watch to make sure the bone doesn’t splinter and throw it out once it has been chewed down in size. You do not want your dog to eat a small chunk of the bone. If your dog has restorative dental work, do not let him eat a bone. In addition, don’t give bones to your dog if he has a predisposition to pancreatitis. Raw bone marrow is very rich and can cause diarrhea and a flare-up of pancreatitis. It’s better to give dogs bones to chew on after they are full from a meal. That way, they will be less likely to try and eat the bone. Finally, avoid pork and rib bones as they are more likely to splinter and cause injury.


Even with safe bones there are health risks to be aware of. For example, recreational bones have a high amount of calcium. This calcium can be too much for a dog and cause a variety of problems including a build-up of bladder stones, leading to pain and trouble urinating. This requires surgery to remove the stones. Additionally, gnawing on any bones can lead to cracked teeth, which can cause root infections and other problems. As a result of these risks, many veterinarians advise pet owners not to feed their dogs any bones at all.




Although there can be health risks associated with chewing and eating bones, if you feed your dog safe types of bones and observe him while he’s working, you should be able to avoid most problems and allow your dog to happily munch away. From spooky bones to doggy bones,  you and your dog can both have a happy Halloween.

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Spooky Animals


batYou’re walking down the road alone at night when a black cat darts in front of you. You shiver and continue along as the slow, drawn out hoot of an owl echoes from somewhere in the woods, followed by a bat flickering across you field of vision. Why do these animals instill fear into our minds? As we enter the Halloween season, the media is bombarding us with images of bats, cats and owls. How did these animals come to be symbols of spookiness; why do we portray them as eerie and unnerving?

Bats were originally believed to communicate with spirits. It’s easy to see why they have inspired many stories, including the legends that associate them with vampires. It hasn’t always been this way, however. Native Americans observed that bats were highly sensitive to their surroundings, and therefore considered bats a symbol of intuition, dreaming and vision. Bats have also been known to symbolize death and rebirth. Because bats emerge from womb-like caves at dusk, they appear to be reborn every day.

Unfortunately, legends have not always been kind to bats. Medieval texts described bats as familiars for witches. Interestingly, the old European association of bats and vampires occurred long before Europeans discovered the existence of vampire bats. However, bats are not always cast as evil. In Chinese folklore, bats are a symbol of good fortune and luck. Five bats together represent the “Five Blessings” of long life, wealth, health, love of virtue, and a peaceful death.

Why do people fear bats today? While they can be a carrier of rabies, so can many other common mammals, such as raccoons, foxes and woodchucks. Thus, the main reason probably isn’t disease. A good deal of bat phobia can be traced to the relatively unknown natural history of the bat - we fear what we don’t understand. Bats roost during the day and are generally out of sight. Their echolocation is also undetectable by us; thus, they appear to be silent = creepy! Their nocturnal lifestyle makes them hard to see or appreciate. What’s more, we have created plenty of our own modern day myths about bats. However, they are not blind and they don’t get caught in your hair. The real facts about bats are actually much more interesting than the ones we’ve made up.

Bats - fact and fiction

Bats are indispensable when it comes to controlling insects and other pests. A single bat can eat over 1,200 mosquito-sized insects in just an hour. Not all bats are benign, however; there are three known species of vampire bats that do, in fact, eat blood. But the 1,000 or so other species each insects, fruit and fish. They are the second largest group of mammals (after rodents) and are the only mammals capable of sustained flight. So sit on your porch some evening and take in the erratic, beautiful flights of bats, serving as your all-natural insect repellent.

Like bats, cats have often been cast as villains. In Western history, black cats were often thought of as evil omens or suspected of being a witch’s familiar. In much of  Europe a black cat is considered a symbol of bad luck. A black cat crossing your path can be an omen of misfortune and even death.

cat eyes

The black cat in folklore has been able to change into human shape to act as a spy or courier for witches or demons. The pilgrims viewed black cats as companions to witches, and anyone caught with a black cat could be severely punished or even killed. They viewed the black cat as part demon and part sorcery. During the Middle Ages, black cats were considered satanic and were often burned in bonfires.

Because of these superstitions, some shelters will suspend or limit adoptions of black cats around Halloween for fear that they will be tortured or used as “living decorations” and then abandoned. Abandonment does seem to be an issue; the RSPCA has previously reported that 70% of the abandoned cats in its care were black, well over the percent of black cats in the overall population. The pendulum may be swinging back the other way, however. Great Britain celebrates Black Cat Day (October 27) while here in the U.S. we have our own Black Cat Appreciation Day (August 17). Perhaps black cats are finally shedding their centuries-old reputation for evil?

Owls have mixed portrayals in the media and history. They can sometimes be portrayed as cute, with large eyes and soft feathers, and can be seen in commercials for everything from eyeglasses to car insurance (offering us savings of 15% or more!) In Greek mythology, the owl was the companion of Athena, goddess of wisdom. This may be why owls are thought of as intelligent. But owls are more likely to invoke a sense of spookiness. In part, it’s just a result of their natural history. Like bats they are nocturnal hunters. Their yellow eyes and eerie call just add to the effect. Owls have other behaviors that add to the creepiness factor: such as turning their heads 270 degrees, or eating their prey whole and then regurgitating the remains.

How owls can turn their heads without damaging their blood vessels

Thus, it’s not surprising that owls have often been linked with evil and decay. Many cultures have viewed owls as a symbol of impending death. An owl was even said to have predicted the death of Julius Caesar. Owls, like black cats, have also been associated with witches and demons. Sadly, owls are still killed in some places due to superstitious beliefs. They occupy an important niche in nature, however, as outstanding hunters of rodents, helping to keep a lid on their populations. But owls eat more than mice and rats. In fact, the great-horned owl is one of the only predators of adult skunks. They have a poor sense of smell and seem happy to munch away on a meal that few predators could enjoy!

As you prepare for this Halloween season, you will likely encounter these spooky animals decorating shops and homes. We hope you can enjoy the chills they bring while appreciating the important roles these animals play in our world.

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Looking for Leviathans - Whale Watching Voyages

whale watchingWhat lives under the sea, is longer than two school buses, and has a heart the size of a Volkswagen Beetle? If you’re a fan of Animal Planet, you may have easily guessed that we’re talking about the world’s largest animal – the blue whale. While there is a treasure trove of video available on whales, they are also one of the few large sea creatures that you can easily see up close and personal on a whale watch.

Whale watching tips

Whale watching has become enormously popular (pun intended). It began in the 1950’s off the coast of San Diego, as visitors flocked to see local Gray whales at a cost of only $1 per trip! Whale watching took off, bringing in over 10,000 attendees the first year. It has now spread around the globe, with trips being offered across the Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean, Mediterranean and Indian oceans. It’s a large part of the tourist economy in many areas and provides a crucial, renewable source of income for many developing countries.

The species you’ll see on a watch will depend on your location. Some of the most exciting whales to watch are humpback whales, which can be found in both polar and tropical waters across the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Humpback whales migrate 16,000 miles each year and can be found in both deep and coastal waters. They are some of the best whales to observe due to their impressive breaching and other distinctive surface behaviors.

Watch these humpbacks breach next to kayakers

Humpback whales feed on krill and small fish using a bubble net technique, during which a group of whales swims in a shrinking circle blowing bubbles below a school of prey. The shrinking ring of bubbles encircles the school and confines it in an even-smaller cylinder. Some whales blow the bubbles and some dive deeper to drive fish towards the surface. The whales then suddenly swim upward through the “net,” mouths agape, swallowing thousands of fish in one gulp.  Some engage in a variation of this technique called lobtail feeding, in which they slap the surface of the ocean with their tails before creating the bubble net. This paralyzes the fish and renders them helpless as they are sucked into the net. This technique is a great boon to whale watchers as it draws many whales to the surface of the ocean; whale watchers can look for bubbles as clues for where the whales will surface next.

Humpback whales are also fun to watch because it is easy to identify different individuals. Many whale observers will name whales they see frequently and will look for these friends when they go out. How do we tell who is who? They have specific patterns on their tails that are unique. Humpback whales also attract huge numbers of seagulls. Seagulls are attracted to bubble nets because they can feed on the same fish that the whales are trapping. However, they are not afraid to get up close and personal with their hunting buddies. They can even be seen riding on the heads of humpback whales as they are feeding. And whale watching isn’t limited to just birds and whales. Visitors can often see seals, sea lions, marine turtles and a variety of other sea life. 

What is a typical whale watch like? A watch may last anywhere from a couple of hours to nearly a day, depending on the location and the type of tour desired. One factor is the distance to the feeding or viewing area. For example, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is a popular area for watching humpback whales. But this feeding area is well off the coast of New England, it can take two or more hours just to get to the feeding area, depending on where you launch. But the trip out is also enjoyable. Imagine riding the waves with the sun on your face and your hair in the wind. It’s easy to pass the time, boats usually offer meals, drinks, and snacks. During the trip out, you may well have a naturalist available to explain the ecology of the area, what to look for, and the species that will probably be present. It’s not unusual to have a show & tell session where visitors can see and feel actual whale skull or baleen – the “sieve” used by whales in feeding.

Once you arrive at the site, boat operators maneuver the vessel in order to maximize the visibility of the animals, while maintaining a safe distance. A naturalist may be on board to direct you towards the sightings and explain the behavior of the animals. However, precautions must be taken to avoid harassing the whales. Regulations limit the number of boats present, the total number of boats per day, and the distance that must be maintained between the animals and the boats. Whale watching, done properly, can help people connect with these amazing animals and foster a strong conservation ethic.

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