Do you know what your cat does when she eats? You're probably giving me a little bit of a blank stare right now, like, she puts her face in the bowl and chews her food (or maybe like some cats, she doesn't chew it much at all…).

You throw your cat's food down and walk away so many times, but you might be missing some of the interesting behaviors that your cat is engaging in while she eats. Furthermore, a new study in the Veterinary Journal suggests that the behaviors that your cat engages in while she's eating might tell you just how much she likes the food.

Before we get into this new study, let's review some of the things we already know about how cats eat. Cats are obligate carnivores, and their teeth are really designed for shearing meat into strips, which they then swallow mostly whole. Not a lot of chewing going on… have you ever seen a cat throw up after they eat some dry food? It looks pretty much the same as it looked going down…

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Note the head tilt while eating! Photo of Hank the Cat eating, by Robert W. Howington.

As obligate hunters, cats also engage in a few interesting behaviors while they are eating, such as placing some of their food on the ground or tilting their head to the side while they chew. This behavior is because if they were eating a bird or rat, the body would likely be dragging on the ground. The harder the food is to chew, the more you'll see a cat's head tilt. Cats also shake their heads when they pick up a food item or a small bite of food. Leyhausen attributed this behavior to the instinct to shake a bird that has been killed to loosen the feathers. Cool! Even your kibble fed kitty has instincts related to the cat's evolution as a predator.

The new study, A Novel Set of Behavioural Indicators for Measuring Perception of Food by Cats, took place in Finland. The goal was to categorize what types of behaviors cats presented when eating their favorite food, as well as a less favored type of food, and finally to test out whether or not cats would notice if there was a tiny pill hidden inside their favorite food.

The experimental set up in the study. Copyright of the authors: Saila Savolainen, Helena Telkänranta, Jouni Junnila, Jaana Hautala, Sari Airaksinen, Anne Juppo, Marja Raekallio, Outi Vainio; and the Veterinary Journal

Researchers had 34 house cats from 17 households participating in the study. I love that they were able to conduct this study in the cats’ homes with owner assistance! Owners were asked to film  the cats eating in a standardized way such that the camera was 70 centimeters from the food bowl on an elevated surface. Each cat was fed 1 of 3 food types: their favorite food (often sausage or a meatball, but for one cat a boiled egg), a less desirable food item such as a vegetable or rye bread (!?), or their favorite food  with the placebo pill hidden inside.

The researchers developed a lovely ethogram of the different behaviors that cats showed while they were eating. These included flicking their ears backwards, licking their nose, flicking their tail, dropping the food, shaking their head, licking the bowl, sniffing, licking their lips, and  grooming their body. Results suggested that when a cat was eating a less desirable food, they were more likely to flick their tail, groom their body, flick their ears backwards and lick their nose without tasting the food. Cats who ate their favorite food were more likely to lick their lips. But when the pill was hidden in their favorite food, the cats were more likely to drop the food or the tablet while eating it.

One of the goals in hiding the tablet in the delicious food, was to see if this could be an effective way to medicate cats. Many cat owners report difficulties pilling their cats, so coming up with something that would be palatable and able to be disguised in regular food would be of great benefit to cats and humans alike. The bad news is that the cats were not fooled. It seemed that they were happy to start eating the food, but once they detected it, they stopped eating. Back to the drawing board on that one.

Copyright of the authors: Saila Savolainen, Helena Telkänranta, Jouni Junnila, Jaana Hautala, Sari Airaksinen, Anne Juppo, Marja Raekallio, Outi Vainio; and the Veterinary Journal

One of my favorite things about the study was the pictures of the cats engaging in the behaviors. You really don't realize the kinds of faces your cats make while they're eating until you see video stills of it!

It would be nice to see the study have a little more standardization about what the favorite and least favorite food items were. I assume all of the favorite foods were wet/canned if they were trying to hide a tablet inside. I’d be curious if cats’ behaviors were similar for dry food.  It's also hard to look at eating behaviors if it's something the cat doesn't want to eat…how many cats actually put the cucumber or lettuce in their mouths?? But the study did reveal some very interesting patterns in cats’ eating behavior, that could certainly inform future studies and tell us more about the behavior of cats. Moreover, their goal of trying to develop easier ways to administer medication to cats is an honorable one!!
On that note, if you need some tips on pilling your cat I recommend Kris Chandroo’s Stress to Success program, which I have previously blogged about. You can also check out this video from Fundamentally Feline!

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KQED came and filmed my research subjects a few months ago for a feature article as part of their Deep Look series, in which we (sort of) recreated my study of fox squirrels' responses to frustration. The final video and article are posted and just waiting for you to watch!



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Power problems

poweroutAlthough I’ve been too busy to write about squirrel antics, it doesn’t mean they have been laying around doing nothing! As usual, power outages have been reported all over the country! Squirrels may have knocked out your power recently if you live in the following places: North Maketo, IAComstock Park, MIRedding, CTSpringfield, MAWauwatosa, WIGrand Rapids, MIKinnelon, NJMountain Home, IDKalispell, MTConcord, NHMonroe, CTAshville, NCCape Girardeau, MOMilwaukee, WITalahassee, FLSunnyside, WANew Orleans, LA, and for the third time in one month: Bay City, MI.

Squirrels went international with power outages in Vancouver, and Kelowna, British Columbia as well as in Brazil. And journalists can't get enough of  cyber-squirrel attacks, with recent features about squirrel related power outages in Slate, as well as how independent microgrids limit the damage squirrels can do.

Where there's squirrels, there's fire?

Squirrels don't just ruin your evening of watching baseball, doing laundry, or charging your electronics. They create other problems for humans!

One squirrel started a grass fire in Loveland, CO, while another sparked a heater fire in East Longmeadow, MA. A carport caught on fire in Yakima, WA, and a squirrel was to blame. These fires usually start with some chewing of wires, which squirrels seem to like to do.

A squirrel-related power outage delayed flights in Buffalo, NY. Not to be outdone by the East Coast, in Menlo Park here in CA, there was a recent explosion and power outage in Menlo Park. A body was recovered. A squirrel body, that is.

Squirrels hurt (humans)

“Left pouring with blood”

In the UK, a boy was feeding squirrels when they suddenly jumped on him, sending him to the hospital and leaving him "pouring with blood."

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Now they’re in cahoots?

In New York, one squirrel posed for the camera, while another…attacked the cameraman?

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And getting into dentistry?

In an example of what may be making something more complicated than it needs to be, a man tied his daughter's loose tooth to a piece of granola. A squirrel ensured a visit from the tooth fairy followed shortly thereafter.

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Squirrels cause car accidents


Two children were injured when the driver of the van they were riding in swerved to avoid a squirrel, flipping a van with five people inside.

Another driver went over the edge of a bank to avoid hitting a squirrel, and both passengers in the car required rescue.


Finally, a woman in Warwick, RI blamed a squirrel for her car accident, but turns out it was a DUI.

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Stay tuned for next time: squirrels and crime, squirrel rescue, and the onset of squirrel hunting season...



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Are cats just ruthless killers?

Letting your pet cats outdoors is a controversial topic (and apparently a cultural issue - here in the States, we lean more towards keeping them inside, and the Brits think we're nuts!).  Does it prevent behavior problems? Maybe -- but I have to say I have PLENTY of behavior clients with indoor/outdoor cats who fight with other cats, urinate or spray inside the house, or have aggression or attention seeking issues. So letting cats go outdoors is not the panacea for all feline behavioral ills as some might have you believe (I've previously written about some reasons to keep your cats indoors).

A new book "Cat Wars" might have you thinking that cats are the only source of avian woes (I've also written on this topic before for The Dodo - so don't forget about humans, squirrels, raccoons and other animals that make life rough on songbirds).

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While it's got a sexy, controversial premise, I was happy to see Marc Bekoff question the science and approach of this book in a new blog post.

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And if cats are the killers that some think they are, then why are so many animal experts letting their cats run free? Kerry Lauerman takes a look.

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Food puzzles are so nice they published our paper twice!

videosshotA paper I wrote with some dear friends and colleagues on using food puzzles with cats was published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery earlier this year. They decided they wanted to reformat it and publish it again! And it's open access for the next several months, so download it now while you can!


And don't forget to watch the cute videos of cats using food puzzles!


Do dogs understand what we are saying?

dogblogAnd why do we care so much anyway? A new fMRI study in dogs suggests that dogs' brains respond differently to certain words when used with certain tones of voice. One of my faves, Julie Hecht at Dog Spies, breaks down the study and how we should interpret the results with a grain of caution.


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Pica, or the ingestion of non-food items, is found in species as varied as parrots, humans, and domestic cats. It’s unclear why some animals eat things that aren’t food – some guesses include stress and nutritional deficiencies. This behavior in cats was first noticed in Siamese cats, who are prone to sucking and eating woolen items. However, once all breeds (including the domestic shorthair) were included in studies, it became apparent that this behavior isn’t limited to the meezers in any way.

A new study, Characterization of pica and chewing behaviors in privately owned cats: a case control study, sought to better understand factors that might predict pica in cats, in the hopes of helping the veterinary community in developing effective treatments. This study surveyed 91 pet owners with cats who ingested non-foods, and included a control group of 35 cats who did not.

The researchers asked questions about basic kitty demographics, including age, breed, sex, medical history. They also included questions about the environment (including types of enrichment available, other people and animals in the house, and access to the outdoors). Finally, they asked questions about potential gastrointestinal signs, such as vomiting and diarrhea.

Some cats are attracted to eating strings and shoelaces. Photo "Cat on a strong" by Stefan Tell via Creative Commons/

All cats in the pica group ingested non-food items, with 79 of them also chewing (but not swallowing) other things on a regular basis. Twenty one out of thirty-five of the control cats (that’s 60%) also chewed on things that aren’t really chewables!

What do cats with pica like to “eat?” Perhaps not surprisingly, shoelaces, plastic, and fabrics were all in the top three. Other interesting choices included toilet paper, soap, ear plugs, kitty litter, and sponges. Plastic, paper, rubber, and wood were the chew-toys of choice for the cats who were chewing on items.


Three variables were prominently related to the presence of pica – the first was access to the outdoors. Although pica in cats has often been blamed on being kept indoors and bored, in this study, the pica cats were MORE likely to have access to the outdoors.

Fifty-one percent of the control cats had “ad libitum” access to food – meaning that food was freely available. This was only true for 30% of the pica cats, even though there were no differences in feline hunger ratings by owners between the two groups. Does having food freely available redirect some of that chewing behavior toward food?

Finally, more vomiting was found in the pica cats – but we have a chicken and egg problem in that we don’t know if the vomiting is caused by the chewing, or the chewing is an attempt to relieve nausea. This manuscript opens up interesting research questions about the behavioral signs of gastrointestinal disease, but also suggests that pica is not (at least in all cats) necessarily a stress-related or compulsive disorder caused by indoor housing.

The choices for chewing and eating are interesting to me – we still don’t know why things like plastic and fabric are so darn attractive to cats. And soap? Really? And although we don’t know the prevalence of true ingestion of non-food items in the general population of cats, it’s apparent that chewing behavior in cats is very common (60%) even in a control group of cats!

Pica in cats can be dangerous – in some cases, it can lead to expensive surgeries for gastrointestinal blockage. Pica and chewing can also cause damage to your war

Some cats love to chew on things that aren't food...why? Photo via Flickr/Creative Commons by Jessica Fiess-Hill
Some cats love to chew on things that aren't food...why?
Photo via Flickr/Creative Commons by Jessica Fiess-Hill

drobe, but of course, the burning question is – what does it mean? Is pica a sign of emotional distress or physical pain? Is it a nutritional deficiency? Is it brain chemistry gone awry?  Do cats just need appropriate chew toys? Still so many questions!

If you see your own kitty chewing or eating something that isn’t food, be sure to let your vet know before you have an emergency on your hands! In the meantime, this study chips away at the pica mystery, and brings up some interesting questions about how we feed and house our cats.

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The question has been coming up a lot, with Jessica Pierce's recent book, Run Spot Run (an EXCELLENT, thought-provoking read); and with scientists recently looking for even MORE non-domesticated species we can keep as pets (seems ill-advised to me, even if wallabies are incredibly cute).

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I recently spoke with Melissa Dahl at New York Magazine about ways to help keep our cats happy - my favorite ways: interactive play and food puzzles. You can read the story here!

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I wrote a guest blog for Petcube on many uses of pet cams beyond cuteness! Check it out here!

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In the name of full disclosure, I did receive a Petcube to test! (and it's fun!)

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kpc profile may 2014001 copy 2As promised, today’s blog post is an interview with Dr. Kris Chandroo. Kris is a practicing veterinarian, scientist, photographer, and feline welfare advocate! (=awesome). Kris also runs an amaze-balls website, I Will Help Your Cat, and he recently released his new educational program, called Stress to Success (STS), which teaches you how an understanding of your cat’s behavior can guide medical treatment. It’s a detailed course, which includes 17 beautifully filmed videos, handouts, and the information you need to increase the likelihood that you can medicate your cat! This is truly a labor of love and well worth the affordable price. Kris and I had a chat recently about cats and STS, and I’m happy to share the results with you today!

Tell me about Stress to Success and why you created it?

zachI was looking for a way to empower people who are having a problem with medicating their cat, who are stuck, who want to maintain their relationship with their cat. It’s a way to respect that bond, but its success is also dependent on that bond. I know that my cat Zack was always there for me – and there’s an unspoken part of how we experience the pain of the loss of a cat, for many of my clients, just as or even more so than with the loss of a human family member. That bond between the owner and their cat is fundamental to who they are and to their happiness.

Designing this course was very personal because of what I went through with my own cat, Zack, who lived almost to 22 years. As a family, we were able to do things in a way where we could spend that time with him and treat him, he was able to live his life and it wasn’t a daily struggle. What would someone else want to hear, what would they need --  that I was able to give Zack, that might be harder for other people to do? I had to look at client compliance differently. When you can’t give medication to your cat, what happens?

Stress to Success is designed to show everything technical about how you can read your cat’s behavior and how to achieve medical success to give your cat a chance. At it’s core, it’s a story about your relationship with your cat. It’s about honoring that bond so at the end of the day, no matter what happens, so you know that all of your interactions were respectful.

As a vet, when you prescribe a medication, if the owner can’t get the meds into their cat – what are the repercussions for the owner?

The first is emotional. Push comes to shove, this little being needs you, you are your cat’s advocate and you thought you were going to be able to do it and you can’t. Emotionally, people feel helpless, like they are failing their cat. When people come back in the clinic, and plan one or two didn’t work – they’ve come all this way – they’ve gone through tests A, B and C – they’ve sacrificed financially, it’s like they’re climbing a mountain, they get to the top, there’s hope and then they slip and fall. 

So how do we increase compliance?

There’s an alternative to compliance – concordance. Compliance is when you have a discussion with your patient – it’s a little paternal and the doctor is on a pedestal. As the patient, you are supposed to passively follow along. For a lot of cat owners I see, compliance isn’t the relationship they are looking for. They want concordance. Concordance implies a partnership. It’s a relationship between the vet, the owner, but also the cat.

Part of this course is knowing what the cat’s contribution to that relationship is. Your cat will have things to say – if we can interpret what they have to say – we can come back to the team and together make a decision. Concordance is everyone working together and realizing we all have limitations and working through those limitations for the best result. Concordance isn’t discussed a lot in veterinary medicine because behavior isn’t talked about a lot. Knowing how to interpret your cat’s behavior and putting that into the treatment plan is a major improvement that we can make.

Do you hear stories from clients about the problems they have giving medications? I hear horror stories about how people try to get their cat to the vet – using brooms and vacuums to get cats out from underneath the bed -  so I could imagine people might not have bad intentions, but they might use some pretty coercive methods to try to medicate their cats.

They are desperate; they want to feel in control. I will hear back in terms of – people are usually pretty binary – it’s either working or an absolute disaster. People might make choices they regret because later they feel like they are torturing their cat.

At some point you recognized that this (difficulty medicating) was a special issue related to cats.

For some of my clients, it was SO difficult. The main thing that gets said is “They’re bad, difficult cats.” Other than some simple tricks, changing the flavor or form of medication, if things didn’t work out, hands were thrown up in the air and that was it.

That’s when the lightbulb came on for me – that other people didn’t have an experience like I had with Zack. I was at a point in my career, where on the artistic side I knew how to communicate this information and run a camera. On the technical veterinary side, I knew how things could be improved, and this was the time to bring these two things together. The video is in part a tribute to Zack, this was his experience, how can I share that with other people.

How long did it take you to finish Stress to Success?

Stress-to-Success-coverIt took about two years. The first year was research, building the website, talking to people about the problems they were having. I was sharing Zack’s story online, and hearing people’s responses. People asked me for help because they couldn’t do it the way I did things with Zack. I thought – it would take hours and hours to have an individual conversation and repeat it for everyone who had a cat. That’s why during the veterinary visit, it’s brutal because you have 5-10 minutes after the exam to go over medication and treatment.

It took another year to film, edit and produce Stress to Success.

What did you learn when you were filming this project?

The number one thing I learned from going to people’s houses was the varied relationships that people have with their cats. There are as many dynamics between people and cats, as there are between people with each other. Some were lovey-dovey, some were completely dysfunctional (like Sid & Nancy, or Kurt & Courtney)! Some people are afraid of their cats, some are hands off, some are very hands on.

When I developed Stress to Success, the only way it could work was for it to be customizable. There’s no one size fits all for this sort of thing. People need to know what to do based on their own cat’s behavior. And oh my god – these little guys!!! - I mostly see cats in the clinic – and I logically KNEW they aren’t the same in the home as in the clinic – but when you see them in the home it is night and day, and the advice you might give someone on how to treat or restrain their cat in the clinic might work – but it’s got no bearing on what might work at home. It’s completely different.

As a veterinarian, cats have a rep in vet clinics for being scary. Do you find that a lot of veterinarians and techs are afraid of cats?

Cats have a reputation based on the fact that you have to respect them. If you’re a new veterinarian or don’t work a lot with cats, you are working with a complex individual. If you are anthropomorphic and assume that they will respond like a person would under stress, that will fail you. They have a lot of weapons and they can defend themselves very well. On the flipside, it’s a beautiful thing when you can take one of those cats, and learn what they need to cooperate. We have one cat in the clinic who normally you couldn’t touch him and he had to be sedated, we have him at the point now where with a few techniques he is calm and volunteers to be on the X-ray table. We have a partnership with him, instead of fighting with him.

This is where I think compliance fails. These little kitties need to be in the agreement. Cats need a specific skillset for handling, but when we learn to interpret their responses and know what to do, things can go well.

Do you find that people tend to interpret a cat’s aggressive behavior as mean instead of fearful?


Yes. If you come up to a cat (or even a person) who is getting aggressive, that is designed to make you feel a certain way. That’s where your training needs to tell you that instead of being offended, instead of trying to take control of the situation, you need to take a step back and realize – this little guy is simply communicating with us. There aren’t good or bad cats, they are cats with feelings who are very clearly communicating how they feel right now. That is the only way they are going to talk about it. If you think of it as communication, that is your way forward. Now I know I’m not going to put my hands on a cat’s head and create a scary scenario – I now need to work with the cat to figure out what they are telling me and how to make it better for them. It’s all communication.

Tell me about the olfactory kickstart.

IMG_3268The olfactory kickstart – so, the first cats I visited for filming – my equipment case already had some of those scents (catnip, Feliway, and silver vine) on it – as a stranger, someone potentially scary to the cats – it started to pave a way for positivity with the cats. They were attracted to me, they were having positive associations. For dogs, they are often so food-motivated that giving medication is not a big deal – you just put it in their food. But many cats, when they get sick, they lose their appetite, they lose the will to eat. They don’t want that new treat, they are nauseous or sick. We needed a way to create a positive emotion through their olfactory system.

When I put together that mix of ingredients, the way they reacted before I even touched them, I knew something was there. So it was born from the recognition that food wasn’t always the answer to get them motivated, yet their olfactory system is often still working, so how can we use that to our advantage? I thought that the olfaction would only be part of the rescue plan, but it was evident from first day or two of filming that the cats really wanted this, so I tested it.

Before we met, silver vine was not on my radar. Tell me about silver vine!

There was a study on its use as part of enrichment in a shelter, she was testing different scents. Catnip was hit or miss, but in a stressful environment, silver vine has a positive effect. It’s Big in Japan (like some great bands) but we don’t hear much about it in North America. So I ordered some, and I tested it myself. In the testing phase, I found it more effective in combination with Feliway - - -

Which is how we met! Through Feliway!

Yes, I read this article you wrote about Feliway – and I agreed with it – that alone Feliway is hit or miss. Cats are individuals. But when combined with other scents – bringing multiple olfactory stimulants together, it’s a way to maximize the chances that they are going to respond. And silver vine was something that I read was more effective in a stressful environment.

Let’s talk about Feliway. I see a lot of vets – if a client’s cat is having a behavior problem – they just say “Try Feliway.”

It’s so true.

My whole criticism of it is that the research is not exactly a slam dunk. I also recognize that I may be biased, because the people it helps wouldn’t contact me for a behavior consultation. As a vet, what would you say about its use? Because I think people just plug it in and hope for the best.

The way that many veterinarians respond to behavior issues is different from how we would respond to any other medical problem. Vets love algorithms, that is how we have been trained. If your cat is vomiting, I know X-Y-Z exactly what to do right off the bat, what to do when the blood work comes in negative or positive, I know what medication or therapy to recommend – I know where to go at every step of the way whether a patient responds or doesn’t respond.

STS-roadmap-medium-1-1024x724When it comes to behavior, most of us don’t have that training. There’s no algorithm. So what we know usually comes from sticking points from conferences. The recommendation to try Feliway is because we’ve heard a lot about Fear Free and it must be a good thing, so I’m going to try Feliway. But if it doesn’t work, we don’t know why it didn’t work or what the next step is. I would never be guessing with a medical component of my job, but when it comes to behavior it feels like we’re guessing. I’m pretty sure Stress to Success is the first course like this, to have a roadmap that a client or clinician can follow. It tells you – for example, if your cat doesn’t like the towel touch technique, what they will probably respond to instead.

You include Feliway in your olfactory toolkit - how did you come up with this olfactory combination in Stress to Succss?

I always knew I wanted to combine it – one of my colleagues, Sue Kilbourne, an amazing internal medicine specialist - what she said that resonated with me is how individualistic cats can be. Therefore, there’s a futility in a one-size-fits-all approach. I knew if olfactory stimulation was what I was going to try, my theory is that I would have a higher chance of response if I didn’t just try one thing. How do I bolster that foundation as much as possible? Let’s bring in other things that we have research about.

One of the things we bonded over was this blog post contrasting quality of life vs quantity, and that it was better to give a dog ice cream than a “nasty pill.” I respect Marc Bekoff, but I took issue with this false dichotomy, that it was pills or ice cream. I see a lot of people with cats who don’t want to “put their cat through” treatment. How do we balance quality and quantity of life and can we have both?

I hear the “putting him through this” comment quite a bit. Often that comment is code for - I’m scared, I’m uncertain, I’ve given up. When I read that article – I agree – it’s a false dichotomy. It’s not the ice cream or the pill – the road in-between is the relationship. And in any good relationship there is communication. In STS I wanted to have a scene where I was talking to someone, we’re comfortable, and then all of a sudden I reach into my pocket and stuff something in their mouth, randomly – how would that person respond? If a person did that to another person, it’s probably considered an assault.

And yet we do that to our pets and think it’s going to work out. The system failed Marc in that he should have felt comfortable calling his vet – and he admits in the article that he didn’t ask his vet – so that communication was DONE. His dog clearly said “I don’t like it this way” – but the lack of communication made it a dichotomy between pills and ice cream. When you increase concordance, you can make decisions that respect the bond.

Before someone walks out my door, I say to them, if this doesn’t work, or you have questions, I’m always available, PLEASE call me. You should see “x result by x day” and if you don’t, let me know. A lot of people take me up on that. So sometimes it’s a simple as that.

Do you feel that it’s easy to become complacent because you know a client isn’t going to follow your recommendations?
I can often tell within the first five minutes of an appointment where things are going to go – just from body language, and responses by the person. I’ll see where a person is, where their relationship is, what the limitations are. You see patterns.

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Does that effect your recommendations?
If I’m the only advocate for the cat in the room, it’s never going to go well. The reality is that people have financial concerns and fears. But if I can have a conversation with them before I put my hands on their cat, we can get over that. I tell people, they are in the driver’s seat. I’m there for them, to help provide what they truly want.

I feel like we should talk about Dr. Google and people’s mistrust of their veterinarians. I see people who don’t take their cats to the vet, or don’t see medical issues. Going to people’s homes, I’ve seen loose teeth, bumps and sores, head tilts, limps. These are not people who are financially constrained. But people might first go online and do something else besides going to the vet.

There are few different reasons – the underlying psychology of why people might not go to the vet. I’m okay with Dr. Google. I have good relationships with my clients – and if I didn’t – I’m upfront enough to say I might not be the right vet for them. I encourage people to research things online, but we have a trust and rapport where they are comfortable coming back to me. Because again, it’s concordance, not compliance - I would never tell a person their choice was wrong. I would work within their abilities and philosophy, and contribute how I can. So if I look at it that way, it’s not frustrating to me. If I look at issues like vaccination and food, and extract my personal views, because those things are like religion to people – and just see myself as supporting a relationship - that’s my role. I don’t have to be right about X, Y, or Z. Oh my god, do vets have a hard time doing that! It turns into a headbutting relationship, and the pet will always lose.

Tell me how you became a veterinarian, because I know you were playing rock and roll, and also doing research in animal behavior.


I’ve always had two strong components of what I felt I needed to do – my artistic side – for me music was that thing that created consciousness. When I played guitar – music woke me up in way that nothing else did. And I always had animals in my life – growing up around birds, turtles, dogs, cats. As I went through my 20s – my interest in both music and animals equally grew. Neither went away. I got as into animals as I did into music.

kris2In vet school, my apartment was like a music studio, with drums and guitars and a bass in the livingroom. And then I’d be off at school during the day. I remember days at graduate school doing a research project looking at consciousness and feelings in fish, and then in the afternoon we’d go to the grad lounge and build a stage to have open-mic jams and stuff. Grad school was one of the best times of my life, it was an open place where you could roll with any idea. I was either going to do a PhD versus the vet route, and I think I would have been happy with either. But when I chose veterinary medicine, it went back to my memory of my first dog, she was awesome. But when she got sick, I couldn’t do anything, I didn’t have money for treatment, and I felt very helpless. I remember thinking I didn’t ever want to feel like that again. Vet school was my chance to not feel like that again.

Do you have any pets right now?

I just adopted a cat from Cuba – he had a chemical burn – (see Kris’ website for the full story) I went down there a few months ago and brought him back. And I have two turtles I’ve had since 1987, and I have a horse. He’s a gentle giant. He’s got a big pasture, grass, and a girlfriend.

Thank you so much to Kris for taking the time to chat with me. If you haven't cried enough today, you can watch this lovely tribute to the cat who started it all for Kris, Zack, who passed away earlier this year at age 21.



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Few things are more rewarding than ushering our beloved pets into their senior years, helping them experience senescence with grace, comfort, and plenty of love. Unfortunately, few things also cause such anxiety (both financial and emotional). An elderly pet is more likely to have multiple medical issues, as they experience the “old-age” diseases that are more common with a longer life span – such as kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, heart disease, and cancer.

Successful treatment or management of these illness is dependent on a few things – first, the pet owner’s awareness of the problem; second, their willingness to treat the condition. As someone who works routinely with pet owners in my capacity as a cat behavior consultant, I am often surprised at how poorly many cat owners perform on both fronts.

Photo by David Martyn Hunt, via Creative Commons
Photo by David Martyn Hunt, via Creative Commons

Cats are experts at hiding pain, but I’ve seen situations where cat owners didn’t seem to think much of a limp, a tooth that was falling out, or sudden changes in their cat’s behavior that suggested pain or discomfort. In some cases, this was due to a lack of attention, or the owner’s lack of comfort with examining all parts of their cat’s body. In other cases, I think it was a case of pretending the problem didn’t exist. In most cases, when I brought up a vet exam, I could see the dread growing across the human’s face…the stress of getting their cat into a carrier, the pathetic meowing during the car ride, the perception of the cat as “difficult” during the vet visit, the mounting veterinary bills that would likely result. Often owners cite their own distaste for going to the doctor as a good reason not to bring a sick cat to the veterinarian. And of course many owners don’t even bring their cats for a yearly preventative physical, which is a great way to catch and treat some of those medical conditions before they become bigger problems.

But even more surprising to me were the owners who had already gone through the diagnosis stage, gotten the pills or other medication from their vet, but had quickly given up on actually administering the medication to their cat. When I asked clients if their cat was under any medical treatment, they might rummage in a drawer or the back of the medicine cabinet, and return with a full bottle (covered in dust bunnies) of pills…”oh, he’s too difficult to get a pill into…”…”I tried to pill him but it just stresses him out so much…”…”I just feel so bad…” – I’ll bet not as badly as the cat who needs medical treatment!

Turns out that owner compliance when it comes to pet meds isn’t great. Several studies have been done on dog owners, including using special pill bottles that electronically monitor when and how often medication is administered. Most owners over-estimated how much of the medication they gave their dog, and often did not give doses at the recommended time frames. In one study, only 34% of antibiotic doses were given at correct intervals (Barter & Watson, 1996). Thirty-eight percent of owners of dogs with periodontal disease stopped brushing their dog’s teeth, even though daily brushing was recommended. What seemed to help: the time the veterinarian spent with the owner, and whether the pills needed to be administered one to two times a day (more compliance) versus three times a day (less compliance). We have little data on cat owner compliance when it comes to meds, but I’d bet (and I’m not much of a gambler) that it’s even less than dog owners.

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Not knowing how dire these stats were, I was a bit surprised earlier this year when I read a blog post from Marc Bekoff (whose posts I usually quite enjoy!), suggesting that it was better to let his dog enjoy his old age (with a gastrointestinal disease) than give his dog a “nasty pill.” He opted instead to give his dog ice cream and skipped the meds. As Bekoff commonly writes about animal welfare, I was saddened by his description of treating an elderly pet as something invasive and stressful, rather than a gift to both the owner and pet – the gift of a longer life with less discomfort.

Now let me be clear, I’m not one of those people who advocates letting an elderly pet suffer just for the sake of hanging on and not being ready to say goodbye. But what bothered me about Bekoff’s post was that it contained logical fallacies. He posited the situation as a choice between a “nasty pill” and ice cream, a false dichotomy. My question: why not both the pill and the treat? As any animal behaviorist should be aware, the use of positive reinforcement training has been established for captive animals (including zoo animals and pets) to make husbandry and care (including medications and blood draws) low/no-stress (see here for some great videos from my dear friend and fellow cat behavior consultant Ingrid Johnson on how to make medications a positive experience).

jesus puff4I had a beloved cat who became asthmatic when he was older. I opted to treat him with an inhaler, which involved training him to sit still with a mask over his face while he breathed in the medication. When I started, did I believe he was going to accept this without coersion? No way. But when he got his favorite treat (chicken baby food) with every treatment, before long he was trotting over for his medication and would sit still for a full 45 seconds of breathing in the meds. By pairing the “ice cream” with the “nasty pill”, I was able to get no-stress compliance from my cat, and he got the medications he needed to breathe easy.

The other thing I found bothersome about the Bekoff piece was that he used selectively emotional language. The pills were “awful” and “nasty,” and they had to be “shoved” down the dog’s throat. The picture this creates in one’s mind is of course, that the dog is being tortured, and that Bekoff is absolutely right to stop treatment.

So what if there’s a better way? There absolutely is. See, it doesn’t have to be about quality OR quantity, and although I agree that quality should always take precedence, you can get more quantity WITH quality if you have the tools you need. So where do you get those tools?

iwhycI’m always so happy when life places another amazing person in my path! A few months ago, Dr. Kris Chandroo reached out to me in response to a blog post I wrote about Feliway. That is when I first heard of his AMAZING website I was immediately really excited about the fact that he was a veterinarian, focused on feline behavior and welfare, and that Kris recognized that client compliance is a special issue for cats. He also wrote a great blog post on the topic of medicating older cats who may not want a pill, which you can read here.

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So my next blog post (later this week) will feature an interview/chat with Kris and a focus on his new project, Stress to Success – your step by step guide on how to medicate cats, even the tough ones! So stay tuned – we’ll talk about enrichment, veterinarian-client relationships, the Bekoff piece, and of course about Stress to Success!

References on compliance

Adams, V. J., Campbell, J. R., Waldner, C. L., Dowling, P. M., & Shmon, C. L. (2005). Evaluation of client compliance with short-term administration of antimicrobials to dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association226(4), 567-574.

Barter, L. S., Maddison, J. E., & Watson, A. D. J. (1996). Comparison of methods to assess dog owners' therapeutic compliance. Australian veterinary journal74(6), 443-446.

Barter, L. S., Watson, A. D. J., & Maddison, J. E. (1996). Owner compliance with short term antimicrobial medication in dogs. Australian veterinary journal74(4), 277-280.

Grave, K., & Tanem, H. (1999). Compliance with short‐term oral antibacterial drug treatment in dogs. Journal of Small Animal Practice40(4), 158-162.

Miller, B. R., & Harvey, C. E. (1994). Compliance with oral hygiene recommendations following periodontal treatment in client-owned dogs.Journal of veterinary dentistry11(1), 18-19.





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If you want to learn a lot about yourself, try training another animal. 

I'm revisiting this post in honor of the #Train4Rewards blog party, brought to you by Companion Animal Psychology, a fine fine blog from Zazie Todd! I wrote this post over two years ago about training my cat...well, I'll let you just read it! (Not to spoil the ending, but we were eventually successful in the training!)

Thank you Zazie for the blog party!



I’ve skated through life without having to do a lot of animal training --- even as someone who studies animals! I grew up with untrained cats; the research lab I worked in as an undergraduate used key-pecking in pigeons to study their behavior (something pigeons basically learn on their own through a process called autoshaping); I currently study food-storing in squirrels --- something they are experts at. I like studying what animals do naturally --- and now I think I know why.

Pigeons being autoshaped to peck a key in an operant chamber.

bloghifiveI have trained my cats to do cute parlor tricks – high-five, sit, and the like. But, most of the important stuff that my cats know, they have figured out on their own, such as using the litterbox (no help from me), and using their scratching post (encouraged with positive reinforcement). But I’ll be honest, I don’t really LOVE training. I enjoy the parlor tricks, and I think my cats do too, but that’s a low stakes situation. Now I would like to train one of my cats to perform a new behavior – to go through a cat door into a magical box that will prevent my other cat from eating all of her food (more on the Meowspace in a future blog!).

...continue reading

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