Stress Matters

Magawa isn’t just any rat; he is the very best at what he does. You may recall from “The Year of the Rat” in last week’s Fetch page that this African pouched rat won a gold medal for discovering more unexploded mines and ordnance in Cambodia than his competitors. Training made it possible for them to save untold numbers of human lives, although it’s doubtful that they understand the true purpose of their craft. They work for bananas. They all attended the same school but the rodent at the head of the class is different.

Various species serve as subjects in medical as well as behavioral research. The implications for humans are boundless; basic learning theory applies to all creatures. More than just fascinating, scientific studies are the foundation for improvements in everybody’s quality of life.

A paper published in the current issue of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior examined the rates of learning in group-housed rats. Solitary confinement of lab animals is no longer considered humane any more than it is for incarcerated humans. But there’s a flip side to every coin.

Once the hierarchy in each group of rats in this study was determined, the speed of learning for the high ranking (dominant) rats was compared with their subordinates. The lower status rodents had “anxiety-like” behaviors not observed in their superiors. They had higher levels of the stress hormone corticosterone. Frequently on the receiving end of aggression, the lowly rats also showed fear of change. They were less confident. Stuck in the same cage with no escape from their tormentors, their lunch money was stolen often.

You can probably guess the upshot of this study. Higher ranking rats learned significantly faster because they were less stressed. If Magawa is group-housed with other rats my bet is that he has more stripes on his sleeve.

Our pets, children, co-workers, even the driver in the next lane, have the right to a peaceful life. If we get impatient or pushy we can do real harm. Let’s be respectful of others, regardless of race or species. And wear your mask. We’ll all feel better. We might even learn faster.

Dr. Jeff Nichol, a residency-trained veterinary behaviorist, provides consultations in-person and by telephone and Zoom (505-792-5131). Each week he shares a blog and a Facebook Live video to help bring out the best in pets and their people. Sign up at no charge at drjeffnichol.com. Post questions on pet behavioral or physical concerns on facebook.com/drjeffnichol or by US Post to 4000 Montgomery Blvd. NE, Albuq, NM 87109.