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That Restless Time of Year

Every month for more than a decade I’ve posted a commentary to my website ( ) the majority of which deal with some facet of animal health, behavior the human-animal bond, and the inextricable interaction of the three. For the past 4 years or so, I’d added weekly podcasts to the line-up. The following commentary considers a phenomenon that’s occurring even as I write this and affects all humans and nonhuman animals in the northern hemisphere to a greater or lesser degree. And although some of these changes may result in breakdowns of human-companion animal communication and interactions, it’s equally important to recognize how these effects may impact animals used for service or therapy work where the behavioral and physical demands on the animal may be much higher.

That Restless Time of Year

When late summer in the northern hemisphere rolls around, do you find you feel restless and even out of sorts for no reason? Does your cat seem edgier and your dog more watchful and whiney? In the old days, if you mentioned this to a human medical or behavioral professional, he or she probably would have recommended that you spend some time at the seaside. Several weeks later you would return refreshed and all was well. Ah, those were the days! Today, some professionals will dismiss your comments as the result of an overactive imagination, while others will subject you to a battery of medical tests, and still others will recommend the latest psycho-active drug. ‘

On the other hand, if we look to ethology we discover two fascinating concepts (with amaze-your-friends-with-your-brilliance words to go with them) that may put your mind at rest.

The first concept is zugenruhe, a German word that in ethology refers to migratory restlessness. For example, by late summer the young birds in my area have fledged and they spend a lot of their time honing their flying skills. Additionally, the solitary presence of male birds on fence posts defending their territories in the spring followed by females or pairs defending their nests earlier in the summer gives way to more group activity. The same field that the singular male redwing blackbirds previously carved into private estates with nests they raucously protected becomes a staging area for groups of birds to congregate. Over time the groups get larger, the flying more coordinated, and the stops to rest in long lines on power lines shorter. When not doing this, they eat. And eat. And eat some more, stocking up for migratory flights that consume an average 30-40 % of a migrating bird’s bodyweight.

But what do migrating birds have to do with our dogs and cats?

Even though the average companion animal doesn’t migrate unless his or her owner’s move between seasonal homes, virtually all companion animals are surrounded by species who do. While we often link migration with birds, there are other species which also migrate and whose members may make seasonal appearances in our yards and/or the parks or trails we frequent with our animals. While we may not be aware of these transients, more likely than not our animals will be.

And even though members of certain wild species may stay in the same area year round, they will experience numerous physiological and behavioral changes in response to environmental cues. To get some idea of the magnitude and variety of these changes, compare the physiology and behavior that supports courting, mating, and raising young to that needed to prepare for and survive hibernation, and/or a harsh winter where food may be limited. Whether one migrates or remains in the same location, countless biological clocks and biorhythms must be reset in response to these changes in the micro- and macro-environment.

The German ethologists had the perfect word for these cues, too: zeitgebern (singular zeitgeber) or “time-givers”. For many animals the daily cycle of light and dark serves as the primary zeitgeber. But the daily ebb and flow of tides may cue internal changes in animals who dwell in intertidal zones. Meanwhile ectotherms such as lizards and insects who can’t completely control their own temperature may use a combination of temperature and light as zeitgebern. There’s also evidence that social cues can alter and synchronize biological clocks. One example of this in humans is the “Dormitory Effect” in which women who spend a lot of time together synchronize their menstrual cycles. Animals blocked from natural zeitgebern like sunrise and sunset may switch to something else, including human activity. So whereas the rising run would trigger the countless shifts in body function that prepare the wild field mouse to face the day, the sound of the lab tech arriving for work may trigger similar changes in mice living in windowless laboratory facilities.

Because their fixed environments plus spaying or neutering eliminate the need for seasonal changes, our pets should be immune to the effects of zugenruhe and zeitgebern, right? That depends. All animals are territorial to some extent; they need to feel comfortable in their physical and mental space. So even though they may not be going anywhere, the invasion of their space by flocks of migrating swallowtail butterflies, dragonflies, grosbeaks, or geese may trigger physiological and behavioral changes in them. Young of more solitary species like skunks, raccoons, and feral cats moving within a more limited area seeking to establish new territories may have a similar effect on the stay-put residents. In spring and fall, greater or lesser breeding seasons in year ‘round residential wildlife populations may further increase the zugenruhe and zeitgebern in companion animal environments.

The conventional wisdom—and I use the word “wisdom” loosely—says that if animals are spayed or neutered they’ll be immune to any cues that trigger sexual physiology and behavior. Ignoring the fact that such surgery removes the animals’ reproductive organs not their brains, even when the surgery does tone down sexual behavior, the breeding seasons come fast on the heels of territorial displays. And companion dogs and cats minus their reproductive organs may be as, and sometimes even more, protective of their territories compared to wild animals.

But this is where a strong bond based on knowledge and respect of the animals’ needs as well as our own plus the concept of social cues can come to our rescue. If we relate to our animals in such a way that they take their cues from us, then the fact that we don’t go to pieces when these wild and free-roaming activities occur won’t bother them nearly so much. That seems pretty straight-forward. The problem is our perennial one: because of their greater sensory perception, our companion animals may perceive cues we don’t even recognize as real.

As a result, we may yell at the dog or cat for pacing and whining or marking at night during late summer and fall because we see and hear nothing when we look out the window. But this may occur because we can’t see (or smell or hear) the bear, raccoon, skunk or other wild animal the dog can. At the same time though, our stressed response can reinforce our animals’ stress and any problematic behaviors that may go with it. On the other hand if we do see the bear and we go to pieces, we can hardly blame our animals for going to pieces too.

There’s another possibility that may add another particularly problematic fly to this sticky ointment. These are very ancient and deeply entrenched behaviors that cross species lines. In that case, it seems likely that we, too, may feel more restless this time of year as our own internal clocks reset themselves. It’s possible that we may even feel more edgy and restless because, being as remote from nature as we often are, we can’t determine any “real” reason why we feel the way we do. In that case, and especially if we expect our animals to serve as reliable reference points for us rather than vice versa—i.e. us fulfilling that role for them—you can appreciate how we may find it more difficult to accept these behavioral changes in them.

But perhaps as we think about the effects of zugenruhe and zeitgebern and the role of social (i.e. our own) cues, we’ll be able to see the incredible mechanism that synchronizes environment and individual as the miracle it truly is. And then perhaps it will be easier to see ourselves and our companion animals as integral parts of it instead of mere spectators or, worse, its victims.

  1. Animal behavior
  2. Ecology

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