Why do animals do what they do? Part 1: Introduction

Explore animal behaviors that can be puzzling to humans, but make complete sense to animals.

Ever wonder why your animal behaves a certain way or does things that might not make sense to you? This new series from Michigan State University Extension will answer some of those questions to help youth and adults have a deeper understanding of their animals and work together as a better team for 4-H animal projects.

Most of the animals we work with are not “new,” meaning they have been domesticated and in close contact with humans for thousands of years. Animals that we chose to “tame” were selected based upon characteristics that made them valuable to humans for food, labor, fiber, protection or some other purpose. Animals of a particular species that had the calmest temperament, lowest aggression levels and least amount of fear towards humans were selected to breed future generations. This by no means presents the whole story of domestication and animal evolution, but it is an important part of the modern tale.

Despite thousands of years of selection and evolution, our livestock and companion animal species still retain many of their “wild” traits that greatly influence what they do, aspects of their physiology and how they perceive the world around them. These factors combine to display some behaviors that seem peculiar or out of place to humans, but still make sense to the animal. If we are aware of what makes sense to the animals, our job as caretakers and trainers will be easier because we can learn to work with these behaviors or find ways to not trigger them.

Most livestock species possess common characteristics. For example, cattle, sheep and goats are prey species, or animals that were hunted as food. Conversely, many of the animals that we share our home with are predators, like dogs and cats for example, or hunters of the animal kingdom. Depending on what end of the food chain – the hunter or hunted – an animal falls on plays a very important role in their behavior and physiology.

Part 2 in the series will begin a discussion about prey animals and will talk about why being part of a group is so important and why isolation is so stressful.

If you have animal behaviors you would like discussed, email them to elischer@anr.msu.edu.

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