Domestic animal behavior for veterinarians and animal scientists

Houpt Domestic animal behaviourPUBLISHING YEAR: 2011

SUMMARY: Abridged review of the behaviour research on cattle, sheep, goats, horses, pigs, dogs and cats.

AUDIENCE: Don’t pick it up unless you are well-versed in biology, psychology and zoology terminology. Or at least not without your trusty scientific dictionary. The intended readership is decidedly academic.

03 Academic


The author: Katherine Houpt is a huge name in veterinary behaviour. She is a vet, has a PhD in animal behaviour, and is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviourists. She is a professor at the Cornell University’s Veterinary College. In short, quite the authority when it comes to clinical animal behaviour.

Style and contents: The book covers the clinical and biological aspects of domestic animal behaviour: perception, aggression, biological rhythms, sleep, reproduction, behaviour ontogeny, learning, ingestion, and behavioural anomalies. It covers these topics for dogs, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and cats. The present review focuses on the dog-related chapters.

The book doesn’t burden itself with introductions on basic biology/zoology/veterinary concepts. It cuts to the meat of each chapter using razor-sharp jargon. I love that the author did not compromise in style and contents to try to attract a wider, less specialized audience. It does fall into the trap of using laughably specific jargon, which made this terminology freak’s day. Take a couple of examples: a sexually receptive female is being ‘proceptive’ and looking after another’s young is ‘concaveating’!

In line with the book’s academic style, (most) statements are backed up with a reference from peer-reviewed literature. The reference section – spanning over countless pages – made me blanch. The lady has done her background research, clearly, and then some

Possible improvements: In my view, it failed to appropriately disambiguate the oh-so-complex dominance topic. Dr. Houpt seemed to assume the audience would accept dominance-related diagnoses and explanations unquestionably. It did present some of the disputed points, but barely scratched the surface, and then failed to wrap up the loose ends into a coherent discussion.

The book touched on some (canine) clinical behavioural diagnoses but did not tackle this systematically, thus not attempting to provide the reader with a systematic and exhaustive list of the diagnoses she recognizes, as well as their definitions.

The chapter on temperament testing was a little haphazard in the choice of studies covered, not covering it sufficiently exhaustively and systematically for my liking.

The book occasionally made the intractable management suggestions typical of many ivory tower vet behaviourists. Things like suggesting one prevents male dogs from smelling another’s urine – as allowing it can promote aggressive behaviour. And, more worryingly, an apparent ‘castrate first, ask later’ attitude to male aggression (p. 118).

Finally, like every book that attempts to be the latest-and-greatest overview on a wide array of topics, it becomes obsolete before the ink has even dried off. But such is the fate of scientific books: research marches on.

The gems: I particularly enjoyed the chapter on learning, and within it, the sections on animal intelligence. It took the reader through the typical experimental designs and measures used in animal cognition research: multiple-choice, delayed response, Hebb-Williams maze, mean-end connection, etc.

I also highly recommend the section about the influence of sex hormones on aggression, and the discussion that follows about the respectively positive and negative consequences of spaying and neutering on specific behaviour problems. As discussed in the previous section, one will have to take some of her conclusions with a pinch of salt and focus on the research findings discussed.

Finally, it’s not for nothing that the book is one of the most frequently cited in the field of domestic animal behaviour: it captures central concepts in quite an elegant way. For example:

  • “Olfaction is to animals what writing is to humans – a message that can be transmitted in the absence of the sender” p. 24
  • “… corporal punishment of an aggressive dog may exacerbate, rather than attenuate its undesirable behavior” p. 67
  • “Preventing the development of aggression is much easier than curing it.” p. 116
  • “Care must be taken in comparing intelligence, even within a species, because breeds of dogs differ markedly in their relative performance depending on the task to be learned” p. 588

The verdict: I won’t lie to you, Houpt’s 2011 book is no beach read. But the volume is manageable if you specialize only in dogs. As a classic in the field, it will give you a rich source of authoritative quotes, and a quick reference to boost your memory on the research literature in a given subject.

If you’re an animal scientist for domestic species, or involved in the clinical treatment of behaviour problems for companion animals, make the time and read this one. If you’re a dog trainer or owner and just want a rigorously researched but accessible review of dog behaviour research, read Jolanta Benal’s  ‘Guide to a happy, well-behaved pet‘ or Alexandra Horowitz’s ‘Inside of a dog‘ instead.

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Author: Houpt Katherine A.
Genre: survey of peer-reviewed literature
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