Pet Myths Debunked!


This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Belinda Stancombe

Ever wanted to know why your dog constantly sniffs other dog's butts at the dog park?

Maybe your cat is a nightprowler and you wonder how they can see so well in the dark?

Have you ever contemplated taking them to the vet because their nose suddenly felt dry?

All will be revealed as our veterinarians team up to sniff out the truth. We've compiled and debunked some of the most common pet myths around. Some hold merit, while some are so outlandish it's amazing they caught on in the first place! So if you've got a spare five minutes, grab a puppuccino and read on.

Myth #1: Dogs Sniff Each Other's Butts To Say Hello

Butt sniffing is a very common behaviour in our canine companions and no, it's not because they are just obsessed with another dog's butt.

See, dogs live in a very different sensory world to you and I. As humans, we tend to be physical and engaged in our greetings - we make eye contact and usually engage in some form of physical contact such as a handshake or a maybe even hug. We're also verbal and rely on talking as our main form of communication.

Dogs on the other hand are generally non-confrontational. Take a look next time you're at a dog park and you'll find that dogs approach each other indirectly, they usually avoid eye contact and they spend a great deal of time just sniffing each other to gather information. Physical contact is not made until this initial smelling or olfactory data is completed.

This funny behaviour is how dog's get to know each other and essentially how they say hello. This one is TRUE.

So what exactly are they smelling on each other?

Well, the the reason dogs sniff each other's rear ends is because of anatomy.

Around this area dog's have two special sacs, called the infamous anal sacs. Have you ever been caught off guard by a potent smell while you watch tv? You automatically just blame the dog, and with good reason! Within these sacs lie two types of glands which together secrete a thick, oily, and noxious smelling fluid that is completely unique to your dog.

When dogs become scared, when they go to the toilet, or sometimes for no apparent reason, dogs release the contents of these sacs. The compounds produced by these glands are specific to the individual animal and can be influenced by your dog's diet and hormone levels. They are essentially your dog's "chemical fingerprint".

So what kind of information can a dog get from smelling this substance? Quite a lot actually! Dogs can quickly determine if they've met the other dog before. They can determine if they're male or female, their mood, even if they're ill.

So if you see your dog partake in this behaviour, it's important not to discourage them from doing so because they are just simply doing a bit of detective work to get to know each other first.

Myth #2: You Age A Dog By Multiplying By 7 Years

The saying goes that you multiply your dog's age by 7 to find out their equivalent human age. For example, if your dog is 7 years old they're 49 in human years.

Well, this is actually FALSE.

What we find is that all dogs initially age at the same rates for the first 4-5 years of their lives. After this time, smaller breed dogs actually age slower and live longer than their medium, large and giant breed counterparts. For the 10-year old Chihuahua or Maltese Terrier, their actual equivalent human age is 56 years. For the 10-year old Border Collie, their equivalent human age is 60 years. For the 10-year old German Shepherd, they're actually 66 years. And the 10-year old Great Dane is 75 in human years.

So why do smaller dogs live longer? When you look at other species of animals, it's actually the opposite - typically the bigger you are the longer you live. The Galapagos giant tortoise has a lifespan of 190 years and the Blue Whale can live for 80-110 years! Large body size is usually one of the best predictors of long lifespan across species of mammals, however there is considerable evidence that within species, larger individuals are actually shorter lived.

This is the case in the domestic dog. A recent study in North America found that larger dogs appeared to age at a faster rate than smaller dogs. Their evidence even showed that for every increase in 2kg the dog's life expectancy was shortened by approximately a month.

So why do larger dogs age quicker? The jury is still out and no one really knows why, however we know that faster growth may be correlated with higher cancer rates and disease.

#3 Myth: Cats Only Purr When They Are Happy

Nothing beats curling up with your kitty after a long day and listening to their low rumbling purr as you scratch their head. It is well known that purring is a sign of happiness or relaxation in cats and usually a good indicator that they like you. However this behaviour has also been observed in cats that are in stressful situations, like being in the vet's office, or when they are in pain. This myth is FALSE.

Purring is more a muscular tremor as opposed to voluntary vocalisation. As mentioned, cats purr when they are content, happy and relaxed but this behaviour is also apparent when they are feeding, nursing or hungry.

Kittens first start purring when they are suckling. Because they cannot meow while feeding, they can purr and so use this as a way of communicating with their mother. The mother cat will purr back to her young as encouragement. Some cats retain this behaviour as adults and purr when they are eating, while some cats have a special "I'm hungry" purr. Cats who purr when they're hungry usually emit high pitched cries of a similar decibel to a human infant. Some scientists have described this behaviour as exploitive as it triggers our nurturing instincts to feed them faster.

In addition to this, purring has been observed in cats experiencing stress, injury or fear. It appears to be a coping mechanism cats use to comfort themselves and other injured animals. In a way, purring is the kitty equivalent of a lullaby.

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Myth #4: Scooting Means Your Dog Has Worms

Many people associate the booty scooting behaviour to be synonymous with a worm infestation however this is very rarely the case. In fact, your pooch is far more likely to be experiencing a problem with their anal glands. This one is a FALSE.

Your dog's anal glands should empty when they defecate however in some cases they will become impacted or full, which leads to irritation and scooting. In some cases, dogs simply need to be put on a well balanced diet to prevent the problem, have extra fibre added to their diet like psylium husks or have regular emptying of the glands. Your veterinarian may recommend a high fibre therapeutic diet such as Hills Science Diet W/D Dry Food to increase your dog's fibre intake.

Other reasons for your dog's scooting behaviour include a lump, allergies, faecal contamination and lastly, parasites. A tapeworm infestation can cause irritation but more commonly you would notice the worms around your dog's bottom or on their faeces. Fleas are the culprit for tapeworm spread so always ensure your pet's parasite prevention is kept up to date.

For more about anal glands, read our helpful guide:Anal Gland Problems In Dogs

Myth #5: Dogs Only Eat Grass When They Feel Sick

It's been found that almost 80% of dogs will consume grass. And although dogs may eat grass when they feel sick, less than a quarter will actually vomit following grass ingestion. So this has led many vets to theorise that they are actually eating the grass to curb the nausea, like pregnant women with morning sickness will eat dry crackers to stop them feeling sick.

Dogs may also eat grass because of a nutritional deficiency. Dogs are omnivores and are supposed to eat a mix of meat and vegetables. If their diet is lacking in fibre they may turn to eating grass or plant material. A study conducted in 2007 following a grass-addicted poodle found that when the dog was switched to a high fibre diet the grass consumption stopped. Feeding your dog a well balanced diet is always recommended and extra fibre can be added with vegetables like broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, pumpkin or with oats and psyllium husks.

Grass eating can also be caused by a behavioural issue like stress, anxiety or boredom. Some stressed and anxious dogs have been observed overindulging in the green cuisine. It is best to consult your veterinarian to help curb behavioural issues.

Grass eating is also considered a completely normal behaviour. Some dogs will eat grass simply because they like the taste of it or whatever it is coated in, like fertilizer. So ensuring your dog is kept away when your lawn is treated is always recommended. Studies have also shown that most instances of grass eating are unrelated to illness or diet deficiency but actually an innate predisposition inherited from wild canine ancestors, the Grey Wolf. More research is needed but one theory is that the grass eating serves a biological purpose whereby your dog's ancestors ingested grass to help them purge parasites. So despite modern day parasite prevention, dogs cannot help themselves but ingest grass because it's an instinctive behaviour.

This one is FALSE as dogs will gorge on grass for lots of different reasons! For more information, read our helpful guide: Why Do Dogs Eat Grass

Myth #6: Dogs and Cats Can See In The Dark

Ever taken a picture of Fluffy only to recoil in horror at their demonised portait, glowing yellow eyes staring straight into your soul? Cats and dogs among other animals, both experience a curious "glowing" of the eyes when in the dark and a torch is shone on them or when a camera light flashes.

You might remember from science class that the human eye contains sensory receptors called rods and cones. Cones are responsible for detecting different colours and function best in the light. The rod receptors in our eyes allow us to see in low light settings however rods cannot pick up colours. Cats and dogs have a much higher concentration of rod receptors in their eyes which allows them to see much better in the dark compared to humans.

Unlike humans, cats and dogs have an additional layer of tissue in their eyes called a Tapetum Ludicum. This tissue layer sits behind the retina and reflects light back through the retina to hit the photoreceptors (rods and cones) a second time. This reflection gives the light a second chance to hit the animal's photoreceptors which in turn helps to enhance their night vision. This reflection is the "glowing" that we see when we accidentally shine a bright light on our pet in a dark environment.

So while our pets are more adapted to see better in low light they certainly can not see in complete darkness, any more than we can! This one is FALSE.

Myth #7: A Wagging Tail = A Happy Dog

You only have to go to your local dog park to realise that dog's will wag their tails for many different reasons, and it's not necessarily because they're happy or excited. Of course, some dogs are overjoyed to be running around playing with other dogs, their tails wagging so fast you think it might fall off. Meanwhile, other dogs who perhaps aren't as sociable or a little timid may be wagging their tails for a very different reason such as anxiety and fear. This one is most certainly FALSE.

In fact, while we commonly associate a dog's tail with their emotional state, their tails do in fact serve many functions. Dogs use their tails to communicate with other dogs and people - for example, a dog that has its tail between its legs is saying "I'm submissive, don't hurt me". Dogs use their tails to help with balance and stability. They also use their tails for scent and status communication - we know that dogs have a higher number of glands around this area which play a role in this "chemical fingerprint" we were talking about earlier, so dogs who carry their tails up higher will naturally expose more of their scent.

So now we know that dogs use their tails for a variety of reasons, how to do we know that a tail wag is a happy tail wag or not?

The first thing to note is that a tail wag should not be viewed in isolation, and it's important to assess the dog's body language as a whole.

Next, we can learn a lot about a dog by looking at their tails a bit closer and in particular, the position the tail is at, the direction the tail is wagging and the speed. Every dog has a neutral position which varies between breeds and I encourage you to observe your own dog and learn what their neutral position is. For example, Pugs naturally have their tails curled up over their backs, whereas Greyhound tails naturally hang down behind their legs.

If we firstly look at the position of the tail, a tail that is held around that horizontal mark is a dog that's relaxed. As a general rule, when a dog's tail moves up towards vertical, it means the dog is becoming more assertive, excited or dominant. As a dog's tail moves down and between their legs, they're more submissive.

The direction they wag their tail is also important. Studies have shown that dogs that wag their tails more to the right are showing more positive and happy emotions, while dogs who wag their tails to the left are showing more negative emotions like anxiety, fear or aggression. A 2013 study also wanted to find out if dogs can actually interpret this right or left tail wag of dogs they meet. Dogs were shown both a naturalistic looking dog as well as a silhouette. And what they found was when dogs were shown a video of a dog with its tail wagging more to the right, the dog watching stayed nice and relaxed. When they were shown a video of a dog wagging its tail to the left, their heart rates picked up and they appeared anxious. And we think this is due to the different sides of the brain controlling different emotions.

And a quick word on the speed. The faster the tail is moving the higher positive or negative energy. So the dog's tail that is really high and fast is either a very excited dog, or a very assertive or dominant dog that we need to be cautious of. The dog's tail that is really fast and really low is very submissive.

Moral of the story. When it comes to tail wags, we should view a tail wag as a dog's willingness to interact and to give us some clues about their emotional state. But, it must be interpreted with the dog's body language as a whole.

Myth #8:Cats Always Land On Their Feet

Cats are incredibly agile and are known for their climbing, pouncing and balancing abilities. We have all witnessed cats, be it in life or on YouTube attempting impossible feats. Probably the most impressive of these is the cats innate ability to right themselves during a fall and land on their feet. Cats can do this, regardless of the position they are in when they start the fall.

Feline physics baffled scientists for years until in 1894 a French Scientist was able to capture a series of photographs that showed a cat falling. This series called Photographs Of The Tumbling Cat showed frame by frame the unique movements that cats make during a fall to right themselves.

So how do they do it? Once the fall has begun, the flexible spine and unique collarbone of the cat enables the back to twist and bend in a particular sequence that rotates the body mid-air and allows them to land on their feet. Amazing! This unique ability is called the "cat-righting reflex". Even more amazing is that kittens will start using this reflex at 3 weeks of age and will perfect it by 7 weeks!

Despite this, unfortunately cats do not always nail the landing and injuries can occur, with velocity and height as contributing factors to their success. It is for this reason that this myth is FALSE.

Myth #9: A Dry Nose Means Your Dog Is Unwell

In our experience, this is one of the most enduring doggy myths out there. Ultimately, this is FALSE. It probably originated from the thought that a dry nose indicates dehydration, but that's not necessarily the case.

There's a number of factors which contribute to your dog's wet nose.

1. To trap scent particles

Within their noses lie some mucous glands. Just like us, dogs salivate when they smell something delicious. This actually causes some secretion from the glands inside their nose. This secretion actually helps them absorb the scent. How? The mucous captures and dissolves molecules in the air and brings them into contact with those specialised cells and vomeronasal organ we were talking about earlier. Dogs then lick their noses to taste the fluid that's been secreted, which dampens the surface of the nose.

2. Dogs sweat very differently to us

Their nose pads, along with the footpads, are the only places that dogs sweat from, so your pooch is more likely to have a wet nose when they're hot.

So in general, your dog is most likely to have a wet nose before or during meal times, when their out absorbing scents, and to help cool them down. The temperature and dryness of a dog's nose will also be dependant on its environment. Dogs who have been outside in the heat or wind are more likely to have a dry nose.

And your dog can fluctuate between having a dry or a wet nose multiple times throughout the day and this is completely normal.

So is there ever a cause for concern when it comes to your dogs nose?

The main things to look out for are a change in colour, a change in texture, nasal discharge and other signs of illness such as inappetence, lethargy, vomiting and diarrhoea. If your dog is showing any of these signs it's always a good idea to have them checked by your vet. If they are otherwise well, but their nose feels dry or warm, this is most likely normal for your dog.