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When you are in pain, how does your doctor know where it hurts? You usually have to tell them. You might draw on an image of a body exactly where you are experiencing pain, or rate your pain on a scale. Pain is typically described as an unpleasant sensation, with physical, emotional and cognitive components.

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When an animal is in pain, can we tell? Maybe. For some animals, there might be clear signs of pain, such as an obvious injury. In the “old days” philosophers such as Descartes did not believe that animals felt pain, even if they had an injury; it is only in the last 30-40 years that scientists have acknowledged the likelihood that animals (particularly other vertebrates) feel pain, and that we should behave under the assumption that they do.

cone of shame
Injuries are an obvious source of pain and may lead to the "cone of shame."

There may be some obvious indicators of pain in animals, such as refusing to put weight on a limb, or avoiding contact with a potentially pain-inducing stimulus, such as a hot stove. But there may be other less obvious indicators, such as changes in facial expression or posture, or changes in personality or appetite. With cats, pain detection can be even trickier, as we assume that as prey animals, cats are likely to hide indicators of pain and discomfort that might make them vulnerable to attack. We also know that humans often have difficulty reading their cats’ body language, including that which might suggest pain. The conclusion that follows is that cats are typically UNDERtreated for pain. So what DO we know about determining pain in cats?

Recently, two scientists, Isabella Merola and Daniel Mills, at the University of Lincoln conducted a meta-analysis/review of the last 15 years of research involving the assessment of pain in cats (“Systematic review of the behavioural assessment of pain in cats”). The goals were to assess the current tools in use and identify future areas for research. One hundred studies were reviewed, with each being assessed for method of measuring pain, whether measures were objective (behaviors) versus more subjective (inferring states, such as “the cat looks happy” or “peaceful”), and whether they assessed immediate emotional response to the pain or looked more at the cats mood or personality changes. They also assessed the validity and reliability of the tools – did they measure what they claimed to measure, and would they lead to reasonable agreement between raters?

Most of the studies were assessing cats after a surgery such as spay/neuter, or (the incredibly painful) declaw surgery, or during a repair of a fractured bone. From these studies, Merola and Mills were able to identify the types of tools used to assess pain in cats. These included scales, which might ask a rater to measure assumed pain intensity on a scale, or with specific definitions (such as lameness or response to touch). Another type of tool would provoke pain (via heat, pressure, or electricity) to see what level would lead to withdrawal by the cat. Many of these tools did not define behavioral reactions that would suggest pain aside from withdrawal responses. Scales were the most commonly used tools, but few of them reported on their validity or reliability measures (one that did: the UNESP-Botucatu scale).

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Other types of tools were based more on subjective reports from the owner, behavioral observations by a researcher, or an assessment of how much a cat was inhibiting movement. Some of these tools included behaviors that would indicate both the sensory experience, and an emotional component – such as vocalizations, skin twitching, tail movements, paw shaking, sleep, and posture.

Vocalizations may be an indicator of pain in some cats.
Vocalizations may be an indicator of pain in some cats.

Tool use seemed to fall into two categories: use of scales for acute, provoked pain (such as surgery) which focused on the sensory experience of pain, or scales used for chronic conditions, which heavily focused on those emotional components. The process of differentiating when acute pain becomes chronic was not clear; the timescales used in the studies reviewed appeared to be inconsistent and somewhat arbitrary.

This manuscript also revealed a few important things: these tools have been assessed in very few contexts (primarily surgery and serious injuries), yet there are several conditions that may cause acute or chronic pain in cats, including arthritis, stomatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatitis, and many other illnesses or injuries.

Image from E. Holden, G. Calvo, M. Collins, A. Bell, J. Reid, E. M. Scott,, A. M. Nolan
Cat face scale shownig ear and muzzle changes in cats in response to pain. Image from E. Holden, G. Calvo, M. Collins, A. Bell, J. Reid, E. M. Scott,, A. M. Nolan, Journal of Small Animal Practice

Because some of the assessments required interactions with cats that could be stressful or scary, the authors suggest that observational tools and behavioral methods are the way to go. These types of tools, with owner education, could increase the likelihood that owners would recognize and report signs of pain in their pet cats. One of the more exciting recent studies on assessing pain in cats, Evaluation of facial expression in acute pain in cats, suggests that cats in pain have statistically distinct facial expressions, with changes in both the ears and muzzle. Unfortunately, most observers had a hard time detecting these differences.

Even with the 100 studies included in this review, there are still many unanswered questions. Merola and Mills point to a few key directions for future studies, including defining acute versus chronic pain, and relying more on observation than inference. Assessment tools need to be tested in several potentially painful contexts to make sure they are universal in scope.

So back to my original question, why is pain detection so difficult in cats? I think there are a few reasons: sometimes the more you research something, the more obvious it is how little we know about that thing (in this case, how to measure feline pain). Consider that cats might hide pain, and that there have been many different tests and approaches. Let’s hope this important review helps researchers focus and unify their methods!

For examples of other pain scales currently used for cats:

http://www.csuanimalcancercenter.org/assets/files/csu_acute_pain_scale_feline.pdf

http://www.apcofparker.com/feline-acute-pain-scale/#.VVfb_vlViko

http://www.cliniciansbrief.com/sites/default/files/PainScoreHandout.pdf

 

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Goldfish vs. Humans: But can they multi-task?

Every now and then I find a click bait study pretty amusing. A new study (including measuring human brain activity) finds that over the last 15 years or so, our attention spans have gotten even shorter (from 12 seconds to 8 seconds). The culprit? Perhaps cell phones and the huge amount of information we try to take in by staying "connected." Goldfish, who haven't been impacted by changes in technology, are still holding strong with 9 seconds of attention to give to a task. The Onion had something to say too.

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It's been over a month since I updated you on squirrel news, and it appears that squirrels have been very busy since then.

Squirrel Damages

The historical Derby Summer House in Massachussetts is in critical state, due to damage ccaused by squirrel chewing. Subsequent water damage and squirrel poo equals over $200K in repairs needed to be done.

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Squirrels also seem to like a Nebraska City building that houses the passport office and juvenile services. Nests and squirrel poo were found above the ceilings throughout the building, leading to a major cleanup and remodel.

A house fire near Chicago was caused by a burning squirrel nest in the attic: was the squirrel drunk and smoking in the nest?

A driver swerved to avoid a cat chasing a squirrel and hit a fire hydrant. No word on if the cat or squirrel were okay.

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People were not so lucky in Florida, where a squirrel caused four car pile-up and a death, after a driver stopped in traffic to avoid hitting the rodent.

Squirrel-related deaths in history: 60 years ago a boy was killed by squirrel poison on a Northern California island.

Adding to the list of diseases that squirrels may carry (such as West Nile and the Plague…) squirrels have now been identified as carriers of Lyme disease. And this is just one reason you should not pet wild squirrels!

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All about pets!

Don't we all want to know the truth about cats?

First of all, sometimes I wish I had cable! I'm dying to check out "The Truth about Cats" on the National Geographic Channel.

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There are some teasers posted of John Bradshaw's "tail up" study, as well as a piece on whether images of kittens enhance cognition!

Should we replace pets with robots?

You might not think that your relationship with your pet (especially if it seems to be a good one) might be fraught with ethical concerns. Should we think of pet-keeping along the lines of animal use for research - something that should be reduced or replaced? This blog brings up many questions and interesting facts about our pet-keeping practices (the rates of "death" by neglect is similar for Tamagotchi and real pets).

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The Loss of a Pet Has a Huge Impact

And while our relationships with our pets might be complicated, we know that for many of us, they are incredibly important! @CompanionAnimalPsych reviews a recent study showing that people who recently lost a pet dog, compared to those whose pet dog was still living, reported greater stress and decreased quality of life.

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The manuscript is open access so you can read it yourself!

 

 

 

 

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2015-05-06 08.10.08
Lining the Yahtzee cup with felt can prevent Yahtzee Barf

Well, perhaps I should start by explaining the Yahtzee Barf. Saturday night at our pad is pizza night (we make pizza), and sometimes we play games too. One night we were playing Yahtzee, with one of our cats sitting nearby (she likes to help). We couldn’t help but notice that every time we shook the dice in the Yahtzee cup, our cat started gagging. The behavior would stop as soon as we stopped shaking the dice in the cup, and then would start again with each turn. What the heck? We coined this behavior “Yahtzee Barf” and did what any reasonable person would do, we lined the Yahtzee cup with felt so it wouldn’t make a loud, rattling noise each time we shook the dice.

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Cats are more communicative than we know

catcommWe've all heard that cats are mysterious and don't communicate, but those of us who work with cats are trying to bust those myths. This article interviews a few cat experts (including Sharon Crowell-Davis, John Bradshaw, and moi! How'd I end up in that mix???) about how cats communicate and how to better understand what they are trying to tell us.

What your cat is trying to tell you: Stop playing with the tin foil!

A fascinating new study was just published that suggests that certain high-pitched sounds (including crumpling tin foil) can trigger seizures in older cats. I have a lot of thoughts about this that will likely merit a blog post next week. In the meantime: read away!

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What's up in canine science?

A lot as usual! @DogSpies talks with Dr. Monique Udell, about the state of dog science, and points the way to some current open access dog studies (meaning: you can read them even if you aren't affiliated with a university!!!) in her latest blog.

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That big, bumbling sunfish isn't so lazy after all

I love seeing the sunfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (which is apparently the only place to have captive sunfish on display). They look so ancient and blobby, but turns out their quite good at hunting. Scientists attached accelerometers and cameras to some sunfish to see what they get up to. Turns out: eating lots of jellyfish!

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Not a bad way to wake up each morning.
Not a bad way to wake up each morning.

Another CO3 (Comparative Cognition Conference) has come and gone. Every year, a small (250-ish) group of scientists who study animals (from bees to humans) gathers on the beach in Melbourne, Florida to share snippets of research and make friends with others who share the same fascination with how animals think, solve problems, and perceive the world.

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A bee brain is nothing to laugh at

Bees have a pretty complicated problem to solve: figure out which flowers have nectar, and when. Felicity Muth explores the latest research on bee cognition, and as you will see, it's pretty amazing.

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You know you think your dog looks guilty, but...

Does your dog really feel guilty?

Anyone who works with pets and their owners hears this statement MANY times: "He KNOWS he's done something wrong." It turns out that these doggy (and even feline) behavioral cues that many humans interpret as guilt have more to do with the owner's behavior than the pets. "Dog guilty look expert" DogSpies delves deep into this issue! A must read!

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Cats and Squirrels here, reporting from sunny Melbourne, Florida at the Comparative Cognition Conference (CO3). But that is a story for another day! I spent last weekend in Atlanta doing so many cat-related things that I almost started purring on several occasions.

The IAABC Feline Behavior Conference (okay, it was just domestic cats) happened Saturday and Sunday (that's April 11/12) at some hotel in Atlanta. It was possibly the largest gathering ever of people who work professionally with cats (outside of veterinary conferences), including many cat behavior consultants, shelter workers, veterinarians, and pet sitters.

Things kicked off with a pep talk from Steve Dale on the current status of the cat in our homes, including some things (such as the Catalyst Council and the promotion of Cat Friendly veterinary practices) being done to improve the welfare of the cat.

IMG_4372 Then we heard from Dr. Sharon Crowell-Davis on the social organization of the domestic cat. Contrary to popular belief, cats are not "asocial" - although their social structure is complex and not completely understood. Dr. Crowell-Davis shared a lot of information about matriarchal structures in cat societies and how cats form preferred associations. She encourages people to adopt related kittens together (why not a whole litter?) and basically put it out there - we are depriving cats of learning to be socially competent adults by raising kittens in isolation!! This talk was followed by an excellent overview of feline aggression and ways to work with it. YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE!

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No Friday Faves today: I'll be interrupting my usual programming as I get ready to head to the IAABC Feline Behavior Conference in Atlanta! I plan to give a full report in a blog post after the conference, and I will likely be live-tweeting from some of the talks - you follow along at @mikel_maria. And I will be giving a talk on Sunday about what makes cats and their owners unique...and sometimes difficult!

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