One paw or another
By Jim Poling
Published Oct. 26, 2017
I am sitting on the deck watching the squirrels skip through the fallen leaves, searching for something to steal. Squirrels are beastly vandals and unrepentant thieves.
At this time of year they have intense interest in the flower gardens. They work surreptitiously and I’m not sure what they are after, but I’ll find out when I try to start the chainsaw or the snow blower.
They love to hide their stolen goods in pieces of machinery. One year they stuffed the carburetor of an old snowmobile, which caught fire when I tried to start it.
Another year they chewed two holes in the gas tank of my ATV. I don’t know if they were into gas sniffing or just looking for another place to store their little treasures.
As I watch them I notice that they seem to use one paw more than the other. I’ve noticed this with raccoons, another nimble-fingered thieving species, who appear to do a lot of work with their right paw.
This gets me wondering: do animals, like humans, have a more dextrous side that they prefer for certain tasks? In other words, are some left-pawed and some right-pawed?
Most humans are right-handed. Only 10 per cent are southpaws and more males than females are left handed.
So what about the squirrels and other critters of the forest? I consult Professor Google and find an interesting article by two veterinary researchers from James Cook University in Townsville, Australia.
The article was distributed by a news service start-up called The Conversation, which distributes articles from universities in Canada and other countries. The articles are informative, interesting and free to read and use, and can be found on the Internet at https://theconversation.com/ca.
The researchers, Janice Lloyd and Richard Squires, write that many animals tend to use one side of the body more than the other. Apes and chimps, for instance, appear to be mainly right-handed.
They say that research shows that most kangaroos are left-pawed. Horses, however, tend to circle right, which seems odd considering that horse racing tracks always seem to circle left.
Favouring one side over another apparently is not exclusive to vertebrates. Snails also have a form of laterality. The shells of some snails spiral in a left-handed direction, while others have a right-handed direction. Snails with left-handed shell spirals can mate only with other lefties and righties only with righties.
Another interesting observation by the researchers is that many animals use the left eye and the left ear for investigating items that are potentially frightening.
You can test whether your pet dog or cat is a southpaw or right-pawed. The researchers say that to test your cat, place a treat inside a glass and see which paw it uses to try to get the treat. You can do a similar test for dogs but any dog I have known goes after a treat with both paws.
If you really have too much spare time you can test your dog to determine the meaning of its tail wagging. Italian researchers did that and concluded that dogs wag their tails to the right when they see something they want to approach and to the left when they see something they want to avoid.
Does it really matter which paw or hoof is dominant in a cat, dog or horse? Apparently so.
Laterality also refers to the primary use of the right or left hemispheres of the brain. Determining laterality could help in breeding and training animals.
For instance, information about laterality could help determine which puppies will make the best service dogs. Or, which racing horse will run best on clockwise or counter-clockwise race tracks.
(I thought all horse race tracks were left curved but apparently not. Tracks in England centuries ago all were clockwise but the Americans changed theirs to counter clockwise out of spite during the American Revolution.)
At any rate, my wife says that it does not matter whether squirrels are left- or right-handed. When she sees them skipping through the flower beds she knows they are casing the place for a night time raid for her freshly planted tulip bulbs. And it does not really matter which paw they use to dig them.