Among the animals I currently own, is a 15-year-old cat with hyperthyroidism. This means that his thyroid is on overdrive and he eats voraciously without gaining weight. He also needs to be on medication twice a day. (There is an alternative to the daily meds, but he also has stage 2 renal failure so he can’t have the radiation therapy.)
We started out trying to pill him. But that lasted all of two pillings. This is a cat that I’ve said since day one of ownership 15 years ago, that if he ever needed anything by mouth, I’d have to let him die because otherwise he’d kill me!
So then we went to salmon flavored pill pockets. You know those kind of gummy bears for dogs and cats that are meat flavored and you hide a pill in them? Well, the salmon ones lasted a couple of months. Then we switched to chicken. I think the chicken flavored ones lasted a month. Then we tried switching between the two. That lasted a week, maybe two.
Since the pill pockets didn’t work, we tried the liquid form of the medication and squirted it into canned cat food. Well, do you see where we’re going here? This technique lasted maybe another month. Now the cat won’t eat canned cat food. This forced us to switch to the gel that goes in his ear.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, a couple of brain cells floating around in my skull happened to run into to one another a few days ago and I suddenly realized why the pill pockets don’t work for very long.
Here’s why: When you pair aversives (yucky things) and appetitives (yummy things), you have to be very careful of the timing. If the appetitive comes first and the aversive comes second, you spoil the appetitive. Kathy Sdao talks about having clients whose dogs are terrified of peanut butter because the clients used peanut butter to lure the dog in for nail trimming. Unfortunately, all the got were long-nailed dogs now terrified of peanut butter.
But if the aversive comes first and the appetitive comes second, the appetitive “sweetens” the aversive and now the aversive is not as aversive as it was.
How does this apply to pill pockets? Well, what taste does the animal get first when it bites into a pill pocket? The yummy bit. Then it hits the yucky pill. Eww!
I don’t have a solution to this problem, but if someone could invent and “inside-out” pill pocket they’d probably make millions!
Copy and Paste?
Now this blog isn’t just about pill pockets and persnickety pussy cats (and puppy dogs). What about our horses? What do we do with them that could fall into this aversive/appetitive category? The first one that comes to mind is worming. How many of us have wormed our horses (and I need to do mine!) and tried to give them something yummy afterwards? How many horses spit out the yummy treat? Probably all of them. I know that’s happened to me. So why doesn’t the yummy work after the yucky here? Not only do they spit it out, but they still don’t like the wormer or the process.
Well, Ms. Peggy Hogan has a brilliant solution. Get them hooked on applesauce first. Then gradually add in the wormer, slowly changing the proportions of applesauce to wormer from, say, 10:1 until you get to 50:50 or even 1:10. Then you have more of a mix and not such a clear delineation of aversive first and appetitive second, a gradual habituation.
But, again, why doesn’t a nice peppermint after the wormer work for the horses? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it’s the consistency of the paste itself. How many of you have an aversion to a particular food because of the consistency? I know I hate liver primarily for that reason. I can’t stand the texture of it. I know others who hate hummus because of the texture. I’m willing to bet that the horses hate the wormer as much for the texture and gluey-ness of it as for any other reason. They really want to spit it out but can’t. Even the flavored ones aren’t that popular but they’re a little better.
In the end, though, what other things can you think of that we could do a better job of training if we thought more about what’s aversive to them and how to pair it correctly with an appetitive, keeping the aversive first and the appetitive second?
I would love to hear your ideas and thoughts on this.
And just for fun, here’s a video on what one horse felt about trying out a raw egg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9N7ffnJDkVA