Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Pet translators: do we need them?

Cat yawn Felix
Is Felix the cat talking? No, he's yawning. But what would he say to us in plain English if he could?

Wouldn’t it be great if animals could talk? It would make my job much easier. I could ask my patients what they really ate and when (i.e. not just the officially sanctioned meals but the items snaffled from the park), and where exactly it hurts.

Of course, this will only help if the patients can give me accurate, honest information in a way I understand. Which I think they already do.

This week the Guardian published an article about pet translators. Retail giant Amazon things decent pet translators will be on sale in the nearby future.
But these devices are only as good as the translations we program into them – and what is that based on? Animals give us cues all of the time – via body language, behaviour, pheromones, for example, but do we read them? When a frightened animal expressed his or her anal glands on you, it’s fairly unambiguous. Words wouldn’t add anything to that exchange.

And what if I could say to my patients, “this injection will make you feel better?”. Would they be reassured? I imagine it may benefit some patients, but there would be a subset who – like people – no matter what you tell them, have a fear of the dentist, the doctor or the procedure itself.

Every person I know who lives with a companion animal knows when they are hungry. Right now Hero is sitting on my desk, fluffing his tail across my keyboard, "asking" for breakfast course two. And most vets know when an animal is frightened, and do our best to comfort them. Some of my patients are reassured by my behaviour, a greater percentage are reassured by treats, and others don't trust vets fullstop. Are those patients going to say to their owner - via translator - "take me to the vet"? I think not.

Questions of honesty aside, do pet translators place the emphasis on the wrong side of the equation? Why is it that animals need to talk to us in our language, and that we cannot spend time observing them and trying to read cues?

And if we do rely on such devices, are we setting ourselves up for disappointment. I don’t think, for example, that Phil would ever say “happy birthday” to me or understand that concept. He might even tell me that he would prefer that Hero moves out.

It seems to me that the study of animal behaviour – in domestic and non-domestic settings – is a much more worthwhile pursuit than trying to give ourselves the false impression that animals will express themselves in the way we want them to.