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5 Reasons Pets are Great for the Workplace

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By Carmel Lobello

The idea that pets are good for workplace productivity is counterintuitive: Pets are noisy and rambunctious, and they need to be fed, walked, and cuddled throughout the day. If anything, they sound like they would distract from work.

Yet a growing number of companies, from Ben & Jerry's to Google, are allowing employees to bring their pets to work. Some, like Village Green, a Detroit-based property management company, actually pay workers to bring their pets to work.

Here, five ways pets can improve the workplace:

1. They lower stress levels

Many work environments are inherently stressful: There are deadlines and quotas to meet, bosses and coworkers to please, and often very little sunlight and opportunity to get out from behind the computer screen. All these factors can elevate stress and lower workplace satisfaction, taking a bite out of worker productivity.

The antidote to all that stress? Research shows that four-legged furry friends can be of great help.

Recent studies in hospitals and nursing homes have shown the powerful effect animals can have on human health. Interspecies interaction can contribute to lower blood pressure, relief from depression and anxiety, and even faster recovery after surgeries. Similar benefits have been proven in the office setting, too.

In 2012, a Virginia Commonwealth University study took a look at a 550-person manufacturing-retail office in Greensboro, N.C., where about 20 to 30 dogs came to work each day, says Science Daily. Using surveys and saliva samples to evaluate stress levels, researchers found that self-reported stress declined throughout the day for employees who brought their pets to the office.

Meanwhile, those who left their dogs at home experienced an increase of self-reported stress throughout the day. By the end of the day, the group had "significantly higher stress" than the group with dogs.

2. They help break the ice

Like a cute baby or an offensive T-shirt, pets have a way of instigating conversation among humans. This can be clutch in the modern workplace, where many employees interact only through screens, and offices can be quiet, except for the noisy typers.

Pets pull people away from their screens long enough to answer questions about, well, their pets—the breed, the story behind the name, etc. These face-to-face conversations can help team members bond and boost morale.

A 2010 study out of the University of Central Michigan showed how pets can foster bonding in the workplace:

The CMU study involved several experiments; one involving groups of four individuals, some with or without dogs. Each group member was charged with a fake crime, and surveyed to see if they would report their fellow group members. Groups with dogs present made employees 30 percent less likely to report each other, showing that canine co-workers make for a more cohesive and trustworthy workplace environment. [The Humane Society]

3. They force breaks

Most jobs don't require workers to take breaks, and in a competitive, fast-paced environment, that can mean full days where workers don't leave their desks for more than the occasional trip to the water cooler.

Having a dog in the office requires the owner to occasionally peel herself away from her computer and take the dog for a walk, essentially forcing a break.

Though it sounds counterintuitive, these breaks can boost productivity. Studies show that sustained mental effort over multiple hours, like the kind required for data entry jobs, for example, can cause mental fatigue and stress, resulting in more mistakes and lower productivity. Occasionally breaking away, however, can boost focus and creativity, and lower mistakes.

It also helps that the dog owners are taking the breaks outside and moving around—also good for mental clarity.

4. They remove pests for free

At Civitas, an urban design, planning, and landscape architecture firm in Denver, a gray and white cat named Gonzo performs a vital task: Mice removal.

"The mice came back when the cat before him died, but disappeared again when Gonzo showed up," says Amirah Shahid, a landscape architect at the firm. "He recently left a dead mouse carcass as a present at someone's desk."

Beyond the free gifts, the cat means not having to hire an exterminator to spray chemicals around the office.

5. The decor

Another benefit: Some cats and dogs can make the space more attractive. "[Gonzo's] very handsome to look at," says Shahid. "And he makes us take much needed breaks to acknowledge his presence when he's making his rounds around the studio."

"Clients, consultants, and other office visitors think we're super cool because we have him roaming around."

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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