Samantha Ellis, Global Animal
(ANIMAL BEHAVIOR) It’s no surprise that the 16-foot fishing boat named the Titanic II sunk on its maiden voyage. Superstitions, like believing a ship sharing a name with the infamous Titanic will also share her fate, or believing black cats are unlucky, are not only found in humans. Animals have been found to exhibit superstitious behaviors, too, though their superstitions tend to make a little more sense than ours. Read on to understand your pet’s quirky behaviors.
Superstitions play a big role in our lives, whether or not we give them any credence. Most hotels do not have a 13th floor, instead going straight from floor 12 to floor 14. Around Halloween, animal shelters will not allow people to adopt black cats in fear that they will be used in some cruel ritual. We knock on wood to prevent bad luck. We cross our fingers to get something we want. We wear lucky underwear on days we feel are particularly important. We believe finding a four leaf clover or a penny means we will have good luck for the rest of the day. Many of these superstitions make absolutely no sense, but we still allow them to influence our we act.
Animals also exhibit superstitious behaviors, but they do not appear to pass on those strange beliefs to others in their species. While it is widely accepted among people that walking under a ladder is bad luck, my cat’s belief that scratching that couch will get her food is not (necessarily) a widely held belief among cats. These behaviors are generally learned from coinciding, but unrelated events. A dog might spin around and then receive dinner, thus leading the dog to believe spinning in a circle directly leads to being fed. The more these two events simultaneously occur the more the dog will believe in the power of spinning.
Why do animals, including humans, have superstitious behaviors? In pets, superstitions can develop through the training process. The animal misunderstands the lesson the trainer is attempting to get across. When trying to keep my cat from clawing the couch, I inadvertently reward her for that behavior through my idea of distracting her from the furniture using food. Animals may also develop superstitious behavior as a defense against predators, or as a way to catch prey. An animal may hear a sound it does not recognize, and hides in case it is a predator. Eventually, the animal hides from sounds that are completely unrelated to the sounds a predator might make. The continued survival of the animal reinforces the idea that the action works.
Just like a child who believes his underwear is lucky because he wore them on a day he passed a test, an animal will believe a certain unnecessary and unrelated action will lead to a reward (food, attention, food). Once the child wears his lucky underwear and fails a test, the underwear will become unlucky. Animals will also give up a superstitious behavior when that behavior proves to be unsuccessful. So if you also have a destructive cat, try refusing to feed her until she stops attacking the couch.
For more information on superstitious behavior in animals: http://www.petconnection.com/blog/2009/07/06/superstitious-behavior-animals-have-it-too/