The Meowing 20s: Looking Forward for Pet Dogs and Cats

As we start the 2020s, what changes do we hope to see for dogs and cats?

Posted Jan 01, 2020

What changes can we hope for that would make a difference to our pets? Here are the things I’d like to see to keep dogs’ tails wagging and cats purring through the 2020s.

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A fundamental shift to reward-based dog-training methods. An increasing body of evidence points to problems with older dog-training methods, such as prong and shock collars, leash jerks, and yelling at or hitting the dog. Aversive training methods are associated with risks of fear, anxiety, and aggression that simply aren’t there with reward-based methods [see, e.g. 1-4]. And, training with positive reinforcement is a lot of fun. I expect that more and more dog owners will demand that trainers use reward-based methods.

Shelters and rescues turn increasingly to reward-based training methods. Some shelters and rescues already excel in using modern dog-training methods, and over time more will make this move for better animal welfare and greater results. Others may be prompted by the expectations of donors or other stakeholders.

2019 saw the Pet Professional Guild move their conference away from Best Friends because of concerns about training methods (as Dr. Marc Bekoff explains). If people use reward-based methods for their own pets, they will expect shelters to lead the way, not lag behind.

Use evidence-based ways to teach reward-based training methods and change attitudes on animal welfare. Training is a technical skill, and people’s emotions, attitudes, experiences, and other factors influence the likelihood of people using positive reinforcement [5-8]. In the next few years, I’d like to see more work on how to incorporate human psychology into animal welfare campaigns.

More pet cats will be trained, whether to provide enrichment for indoor cats or to teach cats to use the cat carrier. Training cats to like their carrier removes a significant barrier to taking cats to the vet, with obvious benefits for their health. (If you need a plan, I have one here; also see The Trainable Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis).

Put an emphasis on less stressful vet visits. This shift is already well underway with low-stress handling techniques and Fear Free certification. This will continue, given the benefits that it brings for the pet and peace of mind for the owner [e.g., 9, 10]. I think we will also see more research on the best ways to help dogs and cats have good vet visits.

Greater use of food toys. Food puzzles provide enrichment by making pets work for their food [11-12]. There are many on the market and some easy DIY options. We will see even more use of food puzzle toys for dogs, cats, and other pets.

Make improvements in veterinary treatments for diseases like cancer. I’m not a vet, so I can’t say what is most needed or what is likely to happen. But personally, I would love to see new treatments for hemangiosarcoma, an especially deadly cancer found in dogs, and on which many studies are currently underway

Improve ways to deal with animal hoarding situations. Hoarded animals suffer from a poor living environment, lack of health care, even a lack of basic sanitation. But hoarding is a complex phenomenon, hoarders often relapse, and a sudden intake of dozens of cats (or dogs) is hard for shelters to handle.

An integrated approach (like that used in Wake County, North Carolina) shows promise. Hopefully, we will see improvements in tackling hoarding from a psychological perspective, and in helping traumatized animals when they arrive in the care of a shelter.

Courts are increasingly taking emotional suffering into account in animal cruelty cases. As in cases in Nova Scotia and BC, legal judgments in animal cruelty cases will consider emotional harm as well as physical harm. It follows on from the inclusion of emotional well-being in models of animal welfare [13].

Better breeding practices can emphasize good health and friendliness. We’ve heard about the issues of flat (brachycephalic) faces in dogs, cats, and rabbits, which means that some animals struggle to breathe. There are many inherited conditions in pets (reputable breeders will check for some of them).

But ruling animals out of being bred due to one condition reduces the genetic pool and could inadvertently increase rates of other conditions (Ravn-Mølby et al. 2019 [14]). Science can help show how to improve breeding, and hopefully, consumer pressure will help make it happen.  

Put an end to Breed Specific Legislation. Dog bites are a complex problem, and BSL does not make people safe [15, 16]. More places will adopt bylaws that promote responsible pet ownership (and educate people on what that means).

Societal changes that support pet ownership. Whether it’s millennials and seniors struggling to find rental homes that allow pets, or homeless people or victims of domestic violence finding it hard to access services with their pets, there are many changes that could help. As we increasingly see pets as family members, services need to reflect this.

More people will have emergency preparedness plans for their pets. As climate change increases the frequency and scope of natural disasters, such as wildfires, floods, and windstorms, more people will be affected. Having a disaster plan for your family (including pets) can help mitigate some of the risks.

More research on the welfare needs and behavior of other kinds of pets, such as rabbits, ferrets, and fish. While there is some great research in this area [17, 18], far less attention has been paid to companion animals that aren’t dogs or cats.

More dogs being walked every day, and more cats getting regular playtime. Almost all dogs would like more walks, and almost all cats would like more playtime (wand toys are especially good). As well, exercise and enrichment can help to prevent behavior problems. If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution for your pet, perhaps more walks or playtime would be a good choice.

What would you like to see happen for pet dogs and cats in the 2020s?


For discussion of many of these issues in relation to pet dogs, see my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, with a foreword by Dr. Marty Becker

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9. Edwards, P. T., Smith, B. P., McArthur, M. L., & Hazel, S. J. (2019). Fearful Fido: Investigating dog experience in the veterinary context in an effort to reduce distress. Applied Animal Behaviour Science

10. Stellato, A., Jajou, S., Dewey, C. E., Widowski, T. M., & Niel, L. (2019). Effect of a Standardized Four-Week Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning Training Program on Pre-Existing Veterinary Fear in Companion Dogs. Animals, 9(10), 767.

11. Dantas, L., Delgado, M., Johnson, I., & Buffington, C. (2016). Food puzzles for cats: feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery

12. Sadek, T., Hamper, B., Horwitz, D., Rodan, I., Rowe, E., & Sundahl, E. (2018). Feline feeding programs: Addressing behavioural needs to improve feline health and wellbeing. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 20(11), 1049-1055.

13. Ledger, R., & Mellor, D. (2018). Forensic use of the Five Domains Model for assessing suffering in cases of animal cruelty. Animals, 8(7), 101.

14. Ravn-Mølby, E. M., Sindahl, L., Nielsen, S. S., Bruun, C. S., Sandøe, P., & Fredholm, M. (2019). Breeding French bulldogs so that they breathe well—A long way to go. PloS one, 14(12).

15. Nilson, F., Damsager, J., Lauritsen, J., & Bonander, C. (2018). The effect of breed-specific dog legislation on hospital treated dog bites in Odense, Denmark—A time series intervention study. PLoS one, 13(12), e0208393.

16. Oxley, J. A., Christley, R., & Westgarth, C. (2018). Contexts and consequences of dog bite incidents. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 23, 33-39.

17. Harvey, N. D., Oxley, J. A., Miguel-Pacheco, G., Gosling, E. M., & Farnworth, M. (2019). What makes a rabbit cute? Preference for rabbit faces differs according to skull morphology and demographic factors. Animals, 9(10), 728.

18. Howell, T. J., Mornement, K., & Bennett, P. C. (2015). Companion rabbit and companion bird management practices among a representative sample of guardians in Victoria, Australia. Journal of applied animal welfare science, 18(3), 287-302.