Temple Grandin challenges veterinarians to think as animals do

January 8, 2021
Joan Capuzzi, VMD

dvm360, dvm360 February 2021, Volume 52,

To work more effectively with your patients, train yourself to see the world as they see it, through images.

The advent of spoken language enabled humans to fork off from the world of our furred, feathered, and finned counterparts. But it’s a world in which veterinarians and others who work with animals remain steeped.

There’s a dissonance in outlook, according to Temple Grandin, PhD, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, because humans think in words and animals think in pictures.

“When I was young, I thought everybody thought in pictures,” Grandin said during her keynote address at a recent Fetch dvm360® virtual conference. “And then I learned that most people think in words, but I couldn’t understand why they weren’t also observing.

Every picture tells a story

As a person with autism, Grandin uses her own image-based mental circuitry to consult on both livestock handling equipment design and animal welfare. She hones in on what animals are seeing, from the vantage point of the cat carrier, the horse stall, or the cattle chute.

In Arizona, Grandin visited different farms, some of which operated successfully and others whose bovine occupants showed signs of stress. She called on a cattle farm that was tackling its animals’ reluctance to be herded into a building that had solid walls and a dark entrance. On her recommendation, they opened up the walls to let light in, and the cattle began crossing the brightened threshold willingly.

Another example was when she walked around nearly identical feed yards in hopes of figuring out why they varied in their fitness for cattle. She noticed glaring differences in their orientation to the sun. In the feed yards that worked poorly, she said, “the cattle were going directly into the sun.”

In her work with cattle farmers, she also ventures into chutes to view what the cattle are seeing. Coming up into the entrance of 1 particular chute, she noticed that incoming cattle could see a car through the bars. Cars, she noted, have reflections. Once inside the chute, the cattle could eye other objects, such as a dangling chain and a white jug hanging from the fence. A jug, a chain, reflections of light…all seemingly benign images. To us. But, she emphasized, not to cattle.

“It’s these little things that you tend not to notice that will spook them,” she said.

Grandin cited a study in which colts were trained to walk calmly past a children’s playset. They were led past the structure repeatedly until they no longer reacted to it. But once the playset was turned 90 degrees, the horses no longer recognized it as a harmless object, and they again showed fear.

Likewise, she said, if a horse is trained to tolerate the sudden opening of an umbrella, this comfort level does not necessarily extend to a tarp or a flag, despite the fact that they are made of similar, flexible materials. Animals, she reminded the audience, categorize things, as do we. But their categories often differ from ours.

Animal sense

Grandin prods animal handlers, from ranchers to zookeepers to veterinarians, to be better observers. This goes beyond scoping out what an animal is seeing. Unlike people, whose comprehension is verbal, animals are sensory. Understanding an animal’s reaction to a situation means embracing its sensory input, she explained. “What is it seeing? What is it feeling? What is it smelling?” she asked.

Reaction to sensory input also depends on context. A circuit of neurons in the brain—the nucleus accumbens—draws animals and humans alike to novelty, whether it is a new sight or an unfamiliar smell. She showed video of several cows fearlessly crowding in on a clipboard lying on the ground. But as they sniffed and studied it, its affixed papers began to flap in the wind. The startled cattle jumped back.

“Sudden surprises scare,” Grandin explained. This applies especially to animals that possess what she calls “nervous genetics.”

Although high-strung individuals of any species will react more profoundly, it is the sensing acuity that bridges animals and humans with autism, such as Grandin. As chronicled in the HBO movie about her life, Animals in Translation, autism has helped her understand the minds of animals. Like them, she thinks in pictures.

The autistic mind

Grandin has had brain scans that highlight her enlarged visual cortex and her stunted mathematical processing center. But if veterinarians tend to be mathematical thinkers, she ponders, then what of their ability to think visually, as their animal charges do?

She encouraged the audience to train themselves to sense what animals are sensing, from sights in the exam room to sounds in the waiting room to smells in the field. Only then can they understand what their patients are feeling and fearing.

“Fear is 1 of the main emotions of animals. And it’s also a big main emotion of autism,” she said. Unfortunately, she said, “people underestimate fear.”

Grandin likens the psyche of a dog to a music mixing board. Imagine 7 slots, 1 for each emotion, including fear. A switch—controlled by both genetics and previous experience—adjusts the volume for each.

Previous experience, which often means first experience, modulates an animal’s fear of that experience. For a cat, or even a puppy, the first experience with a carrier should be a good one: A cat’s maiden stay in a carrier should not be in transport to a veterinary hospital but rather resting or eating a good meal. Grandin also frowns on the practice of packing a newly purchased puppy into a carrier and putting it on an airplane.

“I’ve [seen] binders detailing bloody mouths and bloody paws of dogs trying to bust out of their airplane carriers because they’re freaking out in that black hole,” she said.

But that’s just the puppy’s first flight. When there are 2 flights involved, it’s the second flight that they actually die on, because the visual of the conveyor belt is often enough to set up an anticipatory cortisol cascade.

Another important first is the veterinary encounter. A zoo animal’s first encounter with the veterinarian might be it is darted in preparation for a medical procedure. The animal is likely to never cooperate with the vet and might always recognize them no matter what the attire.

The role of firsts

Grandin also described the case of the “black hat horse.” This horse was terrified of anyone wearing a black cowboy hat. The fear, it was thought, came from the animal’s ordeal of being accidentally sprayed in the eyes with alcohol by a veterinarian wearing a black hat. In a phenomenon that shows just how specific a memory can be, this horse was not afraid of people wearing white hats, only those wearing black hats.

The memory was a picture, Grandin figured. So, she placed a black hat on the ground and found that it became less scary to the horse. Through repetition, she finally coaxed the horse to touch the hat.

Grandin called on veterinarians to sync their brains with those of their patients so that they might make first visits positive. What is the kitten hearing—barking dogs? Consider having a separate waiting area for cats. What is the puppy fearing—falling? To combat this most primal of fears, simple improvements such as nonslip floors and rubber-matted exam tables offer added traction.

Other major fears dogs face (thunderstorms and being alone) can sometimes be blunted through better socialization. Socialized dogs—those that get out of the house often, meet people, play with other dogs—are typically less neurotic, she said. As such, these dogs are not as prone to thunderstorm phobia, separation anxiety, and graying prematurely.

Whether an animal lives in a home, a barn, or a zoo, training goes a long way in buying cooperation. Using positive reinforcement, desensitization, and observation, antelopes and cattle have been primed to position themselves for jugular sticks, dogs have been taught to crawl into MRI tubes and lie still for 15 minutes, and sheep have been trained to willingly enter squeeze restraints.

But training requires time and patience—and perspective.

As a person with autism, Grandin says she comes by animal perspective naturally. But veterinarians and other animal handlers can train themselves to relate better to their animal charges by taking a moment to notice the world through their eyes.

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