Stress has been related to health problems in cats. Photo by Greg Westfield via a creative commons license. https://www.flickr.com/photos/imagesbywestfall/3547931238

I think most of us are aware that chronic stress can take its toll on our health; it can reduce our immune responding, and lead to long-term inflammatory responses, and can even increase our susceptibility to cancer. Recognizing this link, humans make efforts to decrease stress, via meditation or relaxation techniques, exercise, therapy, meds, and by directly addressing the source of the stress, when possible.

But our cats don’t always have the choice to manage the stressors in their environment, and stress reduction techniques (such as exercise) may depend on what their humans provide for them. Being dependent on humans also means that cats are dependent on their owners recognizing that they are stressed in the first place!

Unfortunately, stress can manifest in health issues in cats too. One of the most common health issues associated with stress in cats is feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC). In this case, a cat has clinical lower urinary tract signs (LUTS) such as straining to urinate, urinating outside the litter box, or blood in the urine but diagnostics cannot determine a specific cause for the signs (the term idiopathic means disease or condition of unknown cause).

A cat who presents with LUTS is likely experiencing some form of stress. But how do we know what the stressors might be? A recent study, “Epidemiological study of feline idiopathic cystitis in Seoul, South Korea,” sought to determine what factors were related to a higher risk of FIC in cats who live in South Korea. The researchers interviewed owners of 58 cats who had been diagnosed with FIC, as well as 281 owners of control cats who had never had symptoms of FIC. The questions were focused on the cat’s living environment, behavior, and diet as well as questions about the litter box set up.

Based on the records of over 4000 cats in one practice, almost 3% of cats presented with LUTS and more than half of those cats were diagnosed with FIC, suggesting an overall prevalence of FIC of 1.77%. The researchers used statistical analyses to look for relationship between certain aspects of the cats’ environments and behavior and the likelihood of being diagnosed with FIC. This basically involves comparing the number of FIC cats who lived in an environment with a particular feature (such as other cats or outdoor access) compared with control cats.

Cats with a vantage point may be less susceptible to FIC.
Photo by Kaitlynlombardo34 via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Simba_Laying_in_a_Cat_Tree.jpg

The results suggested five key factors that were related to FIC: being male, having a litter box with non-clumping litter, living with other cats, living in an apartment (versus a house), and not having an elevated vantage point for use (such as a cat condo or vertical space). So, for example, although there were equal numbers of male and female cats in the control group, males made up almost 76% of the FIC cats. This means that male cats were 2.34 times as likely to be diagnosed with FIC compared to female cats. The effect was strongest in cats who did not have a vantage point in the home, who were 4.64 times as likely to have FIC compared to cats with a vantage point.

Some other things seemed to contribute to FIC, although the relationship wasn’t as strong, such as shared food bowls, whether cats had access to a hiding space, and being middle aged. These are risk factors that merit more careful consideration in future studies.

Things that did not appear to be related to the likelihood of a diagnosis of FIC in this study included the style of the litter box (covered or uncovered), the number of people in the home, and having access to the outdoors.

We would be naïve to think that stress only impacts the urinary system in cats. It’s likely related to several other disease processes, and studies like the current one help us paint a picture of what causes stress in cats overall, even though it can’t necessarily tell us what will stress out YOUR cat. That’s up for you to do your best to understand and prevent, based on what you know about your cat and by providing him or her with things that make the environment safer, more engaging, and by giving your cat a sense of control via choices (in other words, an abundance of desirable resources!).

Living with other cats or not having a vantage point is not a guarantee that a cat will develop FIC, they are just risk factors. It’s possible that there are interaction effects, where cats who live with other cats are just fine if they have a vantage point, or the risks of being male increase if you also use a non-clumping litter. Plenty of cats may cope just fine with living in an apartment, but knowing these risks, we should do what we can to reduce their effects. By providing your cat with a vantage point, and adequate resources, it is possible we can remedy situations that might lead to stress in the first place – and with the added benefit of possibly reducing the risks of disease.

Reference

Kim, Y., Kim, H., Pfeiffer, D., & Brodbelt, D. (2017). Epidemiological study of feline idiopathic cystitis in Seoul, South Korea. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 1098612X17734067.

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I’m a big fan of food puzzles as an enrichment choice for cats. As natural predators, cats have evolved to work for their food. We brought them inside, handed them a bowl of food, and took their jobs away. At least that’s the way I like to think about it.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with food puzzles, check out the website Food Puzzles for Cats (disclaimer, I am co-owner of the site, but I get no financial benefits from it!). Food puzzles are like other types of foraging enrichments that are used with zoo and laboratory animals. They’re commonly used with pet dogs (e.g., the Kong), and more recently, food puzzles are increasingly being designed for cats. The idea is that an animal must forage for food – for cats this can range from a very simple activity (such as rolling a ball, allowing dry food to fall out) to more complex problem-solving (such as having to slide open doorways to access a well of food).

Previous studies of foraging devices have shown reduced aggression, increased activity, and reduced stereotypic behaviors in various species (including rats, monkeys, and horses). A new study, “Pilot study evaluating the impact of feeding method on overall activity of neutered indoor pet cats,” published last week in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, evaluated the effect of food puzzles on activity levels in cats, utilizing accelerometer-based “activity collars” to measure movement.

Nineteen household cats participated in the study. Cats were either free-fed or fed once or twice per day. Using a crossover design, half of the cats were recorded for a week while feeding from their regular food bowls first, then recorded for a week while feeding from food puzzles; the other half of the cats were recorded using food puzzles first, then back to the bowl. Cats were given a week to acclimate to food puzzles and a week between conditions. All cats successfully transitioned to food puzzles to eat all their food. Feeding happened according to the previous feeding schedule for each cat (freely available food, or fed at one or two mealtimes per day).

Eleven of the cats used the Indoor Hunting Feeder which has five matching mouse-shaped puzzles, and the other eight cats used five different food puzzles made by PetSafe, including the SlimCat and Egg-Cersizer. Cats were assigned to puzzles based on an initial preference test.

Results showed no differences in activity levels based on how cats were eating (bowl vs puzzle). There was also no effect of puzzle type (Indoor Hunting Feeder vs PetSafe puzzles). In fact, the only real effect was that of age – older cats were less active in general.

The results may seem counter-intuitive, because after all, didn’t the cats have to move around to get the food out of the puzzles? Well there are a few possibilities:

  1. The cats have to move around to get the food out of the puzzles, but cats eating out of bowls compensate by moving around at other times – in either case, most of the cats in the study spent the majority of time inactive.
  2. The sample size was small, which might make it hard to tease apart differences between the bowl-feeders and puzzle-feeders. In statistical terms, we call this “underpowered.”
  3. Food puzzles really don’t increase activity (but perhaps they offer other benefits, such as slowing down feeding, and providing mental stimulation, warding off boredom or other problematic behaviors).
  4. The effect of food puzzles might be dependent on other factors (such as offering multiple types of enrichment).

I’m sure you can think of other explanations! Other studies have demonstrated an increase in anticipatory activity levels in cats when they are waiting for a meal, and that increasing the number of meals per day is a good way to increase activity in cats. Moreover, it would be great for someone to repeat this study with even more cats to increase statistical power, so that we can be certain the results are reliable.

So, if food puzzles DON’T increase activity levels in cats, should we just forget about ‘em? No way! As my co-authors and I reported a few years ago, we have seen many benefits of food puzzles when used with cats. I found it very encouraging that 100% of the cats in this study had no problem switching to puzzle feeding!

The benefits of food puzzles for cats may not be exactly what we thought in regard to activity levels (at least in the short term), but given the expansive research on the benefits of foraging enrichment for other species, I’d say the positive effects for cats most likely outweigh any failure to increase activity. That said, we might have to re-frame how we talk about those positive effects.

 

References

Dantas, L. M., Delgado, M. M., Johnson, I., & Buffington, C. T. (2016). Food puzzles for cats: feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery18(9), 723-732.

Naik et al., (2018) Pilot study evaluating the impact of feeding method on overall activity of neutered indoor pet cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, doi: 10.1016/j.jveb.2018.02.001

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They were going to just put her "to sleep"!

Upper respiratory infection (URI) is a real problem for cats in shelters – not only are cats with URI frequently quarantined, delaying adoption – they must experience both social isolation and medical treatment, just adding to an already stressed cat’s stress. Sadly, URI is also a common reason for euthanasia, as many shelters don’t have the resources to care for these cats. I’ll use my own cat as an example, many years ago, she was 10-months old, adorable, and on the euthanasia list at a local shelter for clear, nasal discharge (AKA URI). Luckily, my dear friend (and shelter co-worker at the time) pulled her from that shelter so she could be placed up for adoption at the shelter we worked at. We scooped her up; she never needed treatment for the URI symptoms, and 14 years later, she’s happy and healthy and an important part of my family!

A recent study from UC Davis looked at conditions across nine animal shelters to try to narrow down risk factors for feline URI. “Cage size, movement in and out of housing during daily care, and other environmental and population health risk factors for feline upper respiratory disease in nine North American animal shelters (well isn't that a mouthful)” was recently published in PLoSONE (open access!), and shares some insights about the frequency of URI in shelter cats, and what may increase or reduce transmission.

Shelters were asked several questions about housing, management and other environmental factors. The questions of interest to the study were: amount of space provided for cats in their cage or housing, whether a hiding box was provided, how frequently cats were moved during the first week of their shelter stay, whether young and adult cats were housed in the same rooms, and whether cats were given an intranasal vaccine at intake.

Cats with URI often have ocular and nasal discharge. Photo from the Ottawa Humane Society, http://blog.ottawahumane.ca/2011/06/help-purchase-important-uri-medication.html

Then shelters were asked to track cats presenting with URI symptoms every day. Cats who arrived at the shelter with symptoms, or who “broke” with URI symptoms within the first two days of their stay were not included, and were considered “pre-existing,” rather than shelter-acquired cases. To determine whether particular viruses were responsible for URI symptoms in different shelters, over 300 healthy cats across the nine shelters had their eyes and mouths sampled for genetic analyses designed to look for calicivirus, herpesvirus, and three other common viruses.

Seventeen percent of cats who entered the shelter contracted URI during their stay. The results suggested cats who had more than 8 square feet of living space and who were moved only one or two times during their first week at the shelter were less likely to come down with URI. Mycoplasma felis and feline herpesvirus were the most prevalent viruses in shelters.

Interestingly, there were higher rates of URI in shelters that provided cats with a hiding space. Intranasal vaccines were also associated with more URI, for unclear reasons - although one possibility is that intranasal vaccines elicit some clinical signs that appear URI-like. There was no effect of whether adult and juveniles cats were housed together.

It should be noted that most shelters (8/9) kept cats in spaces that were SMALLER than 8 square feet. Three shelters always provided cats with a hiding space, three did sometimes, and three did not. In the shelters that provided a hiding space, almost all (5/6) had small cages. Six out of nine shelters moved cats more than twice in their first week in the shelter.

So an important question is whether it was the hiding space per se that was related to the higher URI count, or if it is the association between a smaller cage and the hiding spaces that led to that result. Given that a hiding box is considered an important way to reduce stress in shelter cats, perhaps a larger space is just as (if not more) important. The authors suggest that the hiding space may have reduced available floor space for the cats, which in and of itself may be stressful.

An example of a double-portal cage from sheltermedicine.com

Many shelters are now moving toward the “double cage” model, where the cat’s housing space is two cages connected via a portal. The portal allows for the litter box to be separated from other resources, and also allows shelter care attendants to spot-clean cats’ living spaces while minimizing the stress to the cat (especially for those who are afraid of humans). It also doubles the cat’s space, which we should now be somewhat convinced is a good thing for shelter cats.

Given the stress of being in unfamiliar territory, with strange and often scary sounds, smells, and handling, it’s no surprise that cats in shelters are vulnerable. This study adds to our understanding of how to mitigate that threat: by giving them space, and keeping them in place! Shelters should strive to increase housing space for cats, and to minimize the number of times cats are moved around in shelters!

Reference:

Wagner, D. C., Kass, P. H., & Hurley, K. F. (2018). Cage size, movement in and out of housing during daily care, and other environmental and population health risk factors for feline upper respiratory disease in nine North American animal shelters. PloS one13(1), e0190140.

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There was so much squirrel news that it didn't fit into 2017. So we're starting off 2018 with the last bits of my squirrel roundup!! 

Red squirrel vs Gray squirrel – the battle continues

Good news for the red squirrel in the Highlands of Scotland where a reintroduction project seems to be meeting with success. The endangered squirrels were all but extinguished in the area, due to habitat loss and competition with the larger, more robust gray squirrel. Next year researchers will begin monitoring the populations stability.

Locals are asked to report any sightings of gray squirrels, who are the “arch enemy” of red squirrels. However, those sightings typically lead to killings – as gray squirrels are invasive and spread squirrel pox – which they are not susceptible to – but is deadly to red squirrels. Not everyone in the UK is on board with this plan to cull the population of grays, with over 120,000 people signing a petition to end the practice.

Northern Ireland is engaged with its own conservation efforts, and the Belfast zoo recently celebrated the arrival of five baby squirrels (known as kittens). And these tiny but mighty creatures led the forestry agency in Northern Ireland to give up plans to build a new road as it would directly encroach on red squirrel turf.

In Canada, biologists have been observing the spread of gray squirrels in urban areas. These squirrels no longer rely on the yearly tree mast to survive; instead the spread of their population seems to be highly related to the presence of bird feeders. With few predators (primarily raptors and owls), squirrels continue their march toward world dominance. Or least being one of the most successful invasive species around.

Squirrels in history - Cute lepers

DNA testing confirmed that a UK woman who died approximately 1000 years ago perished from a strain of leprosy that was also found in Sweden and Denmark. This strain is a close relative to the one that many red squirrels carry in the modern era. Scientists hypothesize that it was humans' love of squirrel fur that may have been their downfall -- and that they trade in squirrel pelts and meat from the Vikings led to the British pandemic in the 11th century. For the squirrels, it may have just been sweet revenge.

(Oh and the Cute Lepers are a band that I think is pretty good. And a good band name!)

And speaking of cute...

Nothing gets people going like animals doing things that are human-like. Sure, a picture of a squirrel in a tree is cute, but get them to do something like push a tiny shopping cart, and the crowd goes wild. Perhaps the squirrels are playing Quidditch, or musical instruments! These British squirrels are living in the lap of luxury, while other industrious squirrels are hard at work using tools. Of course, these internet obsessions say much more about us humans than about squirrels (although they are very easy manipulated for photo ops with food)!!

Squirrels getting stoned?

As recreational pot becomes legal today in California, I’m sure many people can relate. Even squirrels need a break from reality once in a while. This squirrel ate some mushrooms and “checked out.” The internet claims he was taken to a vet and recovered. Regardless, the mushrooms had a serious effect on the squirrels (not sure it was so fun for the squirrel).

And you thought squirrels were clean-cut. A woman in a British churchyard was taking pictures of her toddler feeding squirrels, until she noticed one squirrel enjoying a nut alongside a syringe. No word on whether squirrels are eligible for harm reduction programs.

 

Late and Breaking Crime Report!

Police were called to a home in New York where a squirrel had broken into a home. The squirrel was in the kitchen eating cookies when the police arrived.

And that concludes the squirrel roundup -- until next time!! Happy New Year!! May 2018 be a good one for everyone!

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Companion squirrels

Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of keeping wildlife as pets. I just report the squirrel news…but sometimes I disagree with it!

A man rescued a squirrel during Hurricane Matthew, and has since kept the squirrel as a pet. His landlord wants to evict him for keeping an exotic animal. The tenant is now claiming the squirrel is an emotional support animal.

In Auburn, WA, a young squirrel was found in a high school student’s locker. Apparently the squirrel was the student’s pet, and students were reminded not to bring pets with them to school. Perhaps the student should have claimed it was an emotional support squirrel.

Other interspecific interactions

The stories I report are often focused on squirrel-human interactions. But sometimes other species get involved too!

This squirrel wasn’t going to let some little chipmunk walk all over his food source. Apparently if you provide a squirrel with a weapon, they will use it. Check out the video.

Squirrels seem to know how to stay just out of the reach of their predators. This squirrel gives a kitty a run for his money, and escapes unscathed.

After an uptick in grizzly bears killed by trains in Canada, researchers looked for the culprit and found – squirrels were responsible. High populations of red squirrels near train tracks leave “middens,” or piles of food. Given that the bears’ natural food sources have been less plentiful, they’ve been increasingly attracted to the tracks – at their peril.

Pig meets squirrel – so what?
These two buds enjoy a meal together at the Animal Place Sanctuary in Grass Valley, CA.

A dog had to be rescued by firefighters after chasing a squirrel up a tree, and getting stuck.

A face-off between bird and squirrel – all over a snowball with a nut inside. Bird 1, squirrel 0.

Science corner

My friend Pizza Chow recently published her study looking at how well squirrels could remember a puzzle – two years after they had first encountered it. Lo and behold, the squirrels were almost as good at problem-solving as they were when they had last solved the puzzle!

Ground squirrels hibernate, and when they do, changes in their brain allow them to survive long-term despite low blood flow. Scientists are trying to apply these changes to stroke patients – as a short-term “hibernation” could provide brains with protection while they recover.

The Kluane Red Squirrel Project, lovingly known as "squirrel camp," is a laboratory studying a multitude of interesting questions about squirrels – such as where they are burying their food and who is having sex with whom. They’re also using cool technology – like accelerometers, to track the squirrels’ activity. They recently found that momma squirrels who can anticipate a bumper year of nuts before the trees actually produce that abundance have more surviving offspring.

Finally, I published a little squirrel research of my own this year, exploring the decisions squirrels make when they are given “mixed nuts” – and interestingly, they cached nuts in a manner that suggested they were organizing nuts by type, even when they received the nuts in random order! You can read about it here!

 

 

Glamping -- it's not just for humans

People went "nuts" when they saw this squirrel stealing toilet paper at a campsite. Glamping? Or just fluffing up her nest?

Squirrel and cars -- Can they be friends?

A man in Michigan heard a strange clicking coming from the hood of his car…and pulled over to investigate. Inside were…hundreds of pine cones. He was pissed, but imagine how the squirrel feels.

If you’ve ever run over a squirrel with your car, or like me, have come close to a squirrel-disaster while on a bicycle – you might wonder – why do squirrel seem to hedge when they’re trying to cross the road? Rather than darting back and forth, why can’t they just commit and make a run for it??

Well, a likely explanation is that this zig-zag behavior is helpful when avoiding most of their predators, such as owls. It doesn’t work so well with cars, but hey, squirrels didn’t do most of their evolving around automobiles.

Tomorrow: Bringing in the New Year with my fifth and final installment of the squirrel roundup! It will feature the CUTE CORNER and squirrels in history!

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Squirrels and sports

A squirrel interrupted the second quarter of a football game between the Eagles and Dolphins, setting Twitter on fire. Presumably a different squirrel got in the mix during a game between the Calgary Stampeders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Not to be outdone, this squirrel SCORED A TOUCHDOWN during a Lousville-Kent State game. For the record, this video is AMAZING.

A squirrel was running wild at the start of a Manchester soccer game, but was scooped up after causing an 8-minute delay and biting one groundskeeper.

A squirrel interrupted Jason Day’s golfing warm-up, and a squirrel thrilled the audience of a cycling race in Norwegian with his branch-scampering antics.

Squirrel Rampages

Back in July, a Brooklyn squirrel went on a “three day biting spree,” and claimed at least five victims in Prospect Park (including one man who was bitten while jogging) before mysteriously disappearing.

Squirrels in New Orleans had similar plans, attacking at least four people, including a pastor and two women who were leaving Sunday mass at a local Catholic church. The city was looking for “two squirrels of interest.” One squirrel was seen climbing a man’s leg in New Orleans just hours before other attacks.

Indiana University sent out a warning asking students to beware of squirrels: “If they don’t get food…” they “…may attack.” Washington State University also sent out warnings after squirrels starting biting at people’s shoes as they walked by. The Pasadena police blotter reports that “A strange squirrel was seen to be chasing students” in addition to “A black Toyota Camry was heard to be revving their engine in Lot 5 level 4D.”

A man in Logan, UT was bitten after he chased what he first thought was a “moving dog toy” inside of his house. A baby flying squirrel had snuck into his home, and when the man tried to catch the squirrel with a towel, he got a chomp on the hand. The man expressed interest in keeping the squirrel, but instead the squirrel was brought to the humane society for typhus quarantine.

A woman thought a squirrel was cute and started recording his antics, which included leaping at her face moments later.

Although squirrel bites are fairly common, the CDC has no record of a fatal squirrel attack. EVER.

Squirrel celebrations

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Longview, WA hosted the seventh annual Squirrel Fest, which featured over 50 vendors, live music, a beer garden, a 5K race, a zipline, and a parade. Oh, and thousands of squirrel lovers.

On the other side of the country, Bentonville, AK and West Virginia had their own version of the “Squirrel Fest,” where squirrels on a plate were celebrated. The World Champion Squirrel Cookoff featured tamales, gumbo, and pizza with squirrel meat. The Virginia Squirrel Fest featured squirrel gravy, the “best gravy of all the gravies.” You can also find a recipe for “Squirrel with Herb Dumplings” in the news story.

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Squirrels ruin the holidays

Squirrels ruined holiday displays in 2017. Sea Girt, NJ found its holiday display in tatters after a squirrel was busted severing wires. A squirrel in Queen Anne, WA stole over 150 bulbs from one woman’s Christmas display.

This year, Keene, NH prevented squirrels from repeating last year’s antics of eating the top of the city’s Central Square Christmas tree. Scented soap and a humane trap have kept the squirrels at bay.

A New Jersey family routinely places out small gifts for their mail carrier and other delivery workers. They were shocked to find that the basket of candy, lip balm and tissues had been raided – but the thief was only taking the GOOD STUFF – the chocolates. They set up a remote camera and discovered the culprit was none other than a chubby squirrel. The chocolates have since been placed in a secure glass jar.

It's not all bah humbug for squirrels -- one squirrel got into the holiday spirit by decorating her nest with a Christmas stocking.

 

 

Tune in tomorrow for the science corner and squirrels hanging out with other species!!

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Squirrels and crime

I’ve previously reported about Jon Barbour, the man who shot his neighbor in the buttocks after a dispute about Barbour’s squirrel-feeding habits. Barbour claimed that squirrel-feeding allowed him to commune with his deceased parents. In August, Barbour was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the incident.

Another squirrel feeder in trouble, Gaylord Sigland (who I reported on back in July), was cited for feeding wildlife, possibly violating a city ordinance. A neighbor was unhappy with the squirrels gathering peanuts from Sigland and then burying them in his yard. City council eventually voted 5-3 to exempt squirrel- and bird-feeding from the ordinance, and the charges were dropped.

A British man was arrested after dragging a dead squirrel around from door to door to convince people they had a rodent problem and needed roof repairs. He has since been charged with fraud.

 

Whenever I think about gun control laws, I think about stories like the one about the woman who was “high on something” and pointed a gun at a squirrel outside a coffee shop. And pulled the trigger three times.

You think you're just grocery shopping, and then you see an abandoned cart with five severed squirrel heads in it. Well, hopefully this has not happened to you, but it did happen to someone in Ontario, Canada. The local SPCA is investigating and asking for folks to come forward (confidentially) if they have any information.

A man was behaving suspiciously and walking around wearing emoji-pajamas carrying a baby squirrel in a pink washcloth. Next thing you know he is in lockdown, biting a police officer’s arm and getting tasered in the butt. The squirrel was taken to animal control. Police suspect that he was casing houses for burglaries.

Police blotter

Folks in Lexington, MA called the cops because a squirrel had gained entry into his home.  Similarly, in Wisconsin Rapids, a man called the police because he needed help getting a squirrel out of his home.

Car accidents

A 16-year old girl in Pewaukee, WI crashed her car into a tree after swerving to avoid a squirrel. A man in Charlotte, NC drove into a brick wall when he tried to avoid hitting a squirrel.

Pizza squirrels

Squirrels were spotted eating pizza in Washington, DC, Lakewood, CO, Michigan, Atlanta, and St. Petersburg, FL.

Squirrels were also seen indulging in cookies and potato chips.

 

 

Squirrel rescue corner

As self-sufficient as squirrels may be, they often find themselves in situations where they need a little help from their human friends. This Boston squirrel got his head stuck in a hole at the bottom of a dumpster, which required a soap treatment to get him slippery enough to get out.

A squirrel in Georgia got stuck in a bird feeder, although it’s unclear if the man who discovered the squirrel also helped the squirrel out, or just recorded his plight.

 

A Canadian squirrel got his head stuck in a Dairy Queen cup, but a good citizen was able to set him free. A squirrel in Connecticut got stuck in some spray insulating foam when a man was sealing his roof. The foam quickly rendered the squirrel immobile, but a wildlife rescue was able to clean her up and keep her until she was ready for release.

 

Turns out that police commonly rescue squirrels – officers in Sparta, WI and Portsmouth, VA helped baby squirrels make their way to safety.

And if you rescue a squirrel, you may end up with a friend for life. A family saved Bella, who had been attacked by an owl. They raised her until she was ready to be released into the wild. But for the last eight years, Bella comes by daily for treats, and to model tiny squirrel hats.

Cinderella story or Jon Benet Ramsey of squirrels? Theodora was found in the gutters of a family’s home. Since then, they’ve been caring for her, taking her to McDonald’s for fries, and dressing her up in costumes.

Do squirrels dream of nuts?

This rescued baby squirrel is dreaming of something. Nuts. Yes, I think nuts.

Tune in tomorrow for squirrels and sports, squirrel celebrations, and SQUIRREL ATTACKS!!

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When you neglect the squirrel news, it adds up. I'll be ending 2017 with a few posts letting you know what my favorite rodents have been up to. Let's go!

Power Outages and Fires

Squirrels started brush fires in West Richland, WA and Mississippi, after shorting an electrical circuit, caused a vacant building to burn in Pennsylvania, and inadvertently set fire to a golf course in Anaconda Hills, Montana. Another squirrel burned down 40 acres in Pelion, SC. A squirrel also started a fire in a cheese factory in Canada, causing 20,000 gallons of milk to spoil, and finally, a holiday was all but ruined when a squirrel was found responsible for a house fire in Menlo Park, CA. Squirrels also caused some $1500 worth of damage to the library in Hopedale, MA, where “They’re not welcome if they’re going to chew on the electrical wires.”

Few states avoided the wrath of squirrels. Squirrel related outages occurred in Mitchell, South Dakota, Oklahoma City, Prescott Valley, AZ, Midland Park, NJ, Chattahoochee, FL, Casper, WY, 100 Mile House, Canada, Statesville, NC, Canton, OH, Idaho Falls, York County, PA, East Memphis, TN, Grand Island, NE, Janesville, WI, Auburn, CA, Stamford, CT, Sidney, NY, Louisville, OH, Findlay, OH, Wake Forest, NC, Orleans, Ottawa, Altus Air Force Base, OK, Lincoln, NE, Centralia, WA, Altus, OK, Lafayette, AL, and Mableton, GA.

According to reports, a squirrel in Island Park, ID “sizzled” ‘til he was “medium rare.” A squirrel also shut down the power and the classes at University of Michigan. Christmas Eve wasn’t so fun for thousands in Pasadena who were left without power for over an hour, thanks to a squirrel: “The condition of the squirrel was unavailable.” In Dadeville, AL, a squirrel shorted power lines, causing the lines to fall on the ground and leave marks that some thought were crop circles left by aliens. Finally, one particularly powerful squirrel left over 45,000 people without power in San Diego.

Squirrel-related school lockdowns

School officials thought they heard a gun firing and locked down the elementary school in Beloit, WI. Turns out it was just a squirrel blowing out the transformer.

 

A man in Cocoa, FL put a school in lockdown when he pointed a BB gun at a squirrel that was in his attic. It led to a call to 911, and after the hub bub the man decided he didn’t want to shoot the squirrel after all! For some reason, the news article features several photos of the gun-wielding individual in just a beach towel.

A 74-year old man in Michigan sent a school into lockdown when he was hunting squirrels on school property. Children were rushed inside, and the man was citing for firing a firearm within city limits.

Hunting corner: More squirrels and guns

A man in Amherst shot through three walls of his neighbor’s home with a .22 while aiming at a squirrel. 71-year old Zbigniew Stanley Puza was charged with a misdemeanor crime for discharging a firearm within city limits. No one was injured.

Roger Hoeker was charged with involuntary manslaughter after killing a 13-year old boy. The man was squirrel hunting, the boy was on a hunting trip as part of the Christianity Outdoors mentorship program.

A man in Tiffin, Ohio was shot in the chest by his hunting buddy who was aiming for a squirrel.

A man in Newcastle, Wales, shot his neighbor’s cat while aiming for a squirrel. The squirrel was scaring birds away from his bird feeder, leading John Charles Quinney to seek out the ultimate punishment. Sadly, the cat was seriously injured and had to be euthanized. Mr. Quinney was required to pay a fine.

A Christmas morning squirrel hunting trip in Bristol Township, Ohio led to the discovery of human remains. The human skull and other remains were believed to be almost a year old, and likely belonged to a man. No word on whether the rest of the hunting trip was fruitful.

Tune in tomorrow for even more squirrel news, including squirrel crime and squirrels eating pizza.

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Everyone still wants to know, does my cat love me? And now, thanks to technology and an increased understanding of the human-cat relationship, we can take a better look at whether your cat misses you when you’re gone.

Does your cat miss you when you're gone?

Are cats aloof loners who don’t miss you? Or are they secretly pining away for your return while you are at work? Cats have a reputation for being a low-maintenance pet. Throw down some food and a litter box, and they’re fine, right? But I think the reputation is a bit overblown. It used to drive me nuts when I worked in an animal shelter and the adoption staff would direct someone toward adopting a cat because they worked too much for a dog. Cats have needs, and although they don’t need to be taken for a walk to go to the bathroom like dogs do, it doesn’t mean they don’t need exercise, affection, and other mental stimulation to keep them engaged. I believe this “low-maintenance” stereotype is often the culprit when it comes to people experiencing behavior problems with their cats.

That said, we know very little about what cats do when we are gone, and about the cat-human relationship. A new open-access study, “Cats and owners interact more with each other after a longer duration of separation” looked at what happens when humans leave from and return to the home, to see if cats showed any signs of what is known as “separation distress.”

The study was conducted with fourteen cats, in their homes, in Sweden. The cats normally spent most of their time indoors, and if they were allowed outdoors, it was only with supervision. The cats were tested on two consecutive days: on one day, the owner departed for 30 minutes, and on the other day, the owner was gone for four hours. All cats experienced both conditions, and the order of conditions was balanced, meaning that for some cats, the owner was gone for 30 minutes on the first day, and for other cats, the owner was gone for four hours on the first day.

Digital cameras were used to record the cats’ behaviors and vocalizations, and owners’ behavior when leaving and returning. Behaviors noted included resting, playing, grooming, walking, sitting, attention to owner, meowing, and purring (you can download a list of all the behaviors here). The cats were on camera for about 70% of the time guardians were gone. So, what happened when the guardians left?

Well, not too much. There were no differences in human or cat behavior before the guardian left or while they were gone. Cats spent more of their time resting during the longer separation.

Cats greeted their humans with a little stretch.

When guardians returned, cats were more likely to purr and stretch after the four-hour separation, than the short period of separation. Guardians were more likely to talk to their cats when they returned if they were gone for a longer time, but the purring and stretching were not dependent on that human interaction. This suggests that the cats may have noticed that their human was absent for a longer period, although it is unclear what the stretching indicates.

My guess? That the cats were taking a bit of a siesta during that longer absence (as cats often stretch when they first wake up) – which was interrupted by their human’s return.

Did the cats miss their humans? I don’t think this study provides us with a slam dunk either way. I love that the study looked at cats’ natural behaviors in their homes, and I think it’s great starting point for looking at how cats respond to human absence and presence. But the sample size is quite small, and as most research does to me, I was left with more ideas and questions than answers.

It would be great to look at cats’ activity patterns through the day, and how those are dictated by human activity. One challenge with videorecording is that when the cat is off camera, you don’t know what they are doing.

My cat's daily activity...

I recently put a Jawbone UP on my cat to see how active she is and when. What I can see is that when I’m sleeping, she’s sleeping. And that she has clear patterns of activity that reflect, to an extent, our activity in the home (note: this is not a scientific result!). In fact, I could match my fitness tracker with hers (correcting for when I’m not home, of course) and compare. Hmmm, I think I just came up with my next research project.

I also think that four hours isn’t necessarily long enough to know about how cats really respond to human absence. I don’t know what the work culture is like in Sweden, but most of my kitty clients are gone eight to twelve hours a day (if not more) if they work outside the home.

If the guardian absence wasn’t routine, and since it was different in each day of the experiment, we may not see the same level of greeting behaviors that some of us see when we come and go on a strict schedule. Just like dogs, I’ve seen many situations where cats anticipate their human’s return from work, and greet them at the door or show increased activity at that time.

Unfortunately, there is still a lot we don’t know about separation anxiety in cats, partly because we tend to use dogs as a reference point. Many dogs exhibit overt signs of separation anxiety, which can cause great stress for dog and human alike. Cats may show signs of distress that are less obvious – such as hiding, withdrawing from human interaction, or even sickness behaviors, which we know are triggered by stress and changes in routine.

Until we know more, I think we should assume that cats have needs while we are gone, and even if they aren’t meeting us at the front door. Most of us have to leave the home regularly, but I think that leaving your cat with bird feeders to watch, a sun spot to snooze in and a food puzzle to play with while you’re gone, and providing them with a structured routine including exercise and affection when you’re home are a great way to head off any separation distress at the pass!

References

Eriksson, M., Keeling, L. J., & Rehn, T. (2017). Cats and owners interact more with each other after a longer duration of separation. PloS one12(10), e0185599.

Stella, J. L., Lord, L. K., & Buffington, C. T. (2011). Sickness behaviors in response to unusual external events in healthy cats and cats with feline interstitial cystitis. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association238(1), 67-73.

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I answer behavior questions from readers every month or so at the Conscious Cat!

This month I address controversies about finding lost cats, and answer questions about pica (eating non-food items) and a needy tortie! Check it out here.

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