Dr. Karen Overall once stated quite eloquently: “Behavior kills more cats annually than does viral disease.” One of the least tolerated behavior problems in cats is when they eliminate outside the litter box, and many cats lose their homes (and lives) for an issue that I believe is often one that COULD BE fixed, if humans:

  1. Understood what cats generally prefer about litter boxes
  2. Maintained a suitable litter box environment for their cat(s)

Previous research has suggested cats generally prefer large boxes and clay clumping litters. It is interesting to note that when I have clients whose cats are avoiding the litter box, I often have them present their cat with a “cafeteria” of litter choices to see if their cat has a clear preference. Even when those buffets include ONLY unscented clay clumping litters of different brands, it’s easy to see that not all clumping litters are created equally…and that many cats have specific individual preferences.

But back to general preferences of cats. One thing that often surprises me when I go to a client’s home is how dirty their litter box is. It’s not unusual for folks to clean a box every other day or even less – even in homes with multiple cats and just one litter box. I personally find it gross, and I assume that cats would too. But do we REALLY know if a dirty litter box bothers cats?

Well a new study has cracked another cat code. “Does Previous Use Affect Litter Box Appeal in Multi-Cat Households?” published in the journal Behavioral Processes, sought to explore what factors related to box cleanliness might impact preferences in cats, and which ones might not matter so much.

Using group-housed cats in the Purina colony, researchers looked at several questions by offering cats a choice of two litter boxes over the course of four days, and determining their preference by whether urine and feces had been deposited in either box.

Experiment 1 offered cats the choice between a clean box, and a box which had urine and feces of a familiar cat in it. Output determined that cats preferred the clean box over the used one.

Experiment 2 presented a choice between a clean box and a box that had been treated by adding only the odor of either (1) another cat’s urine, (2) another cat’s feces or (3) the odor of both. Cats used both the clean box and the “stinky” boxes equally.

Image from Behavioral Processes, authors J.J. Ellis, R.T.S. McGowan, F. Martin

Experiment 3 looked to verify that it was the physical obstructions caused by urine clumps and poops in the box, and not the odor, that was driving the cats’ preferences. To do this, experimenters created odorless fake urine clumps with saline, and odorless fake poop out of gelatin placed in silicone molds (do they make poop shaped silicone molds?!?!?). They also manipulated the amount of “obstructions” in the box: 1 clump vs 3 clump and 1 log vs 3 logs – to mimic the possible amount of material that might be in a box if a cat lives alone or with multiple other cats.

Cats preferred the clean box overall, unless there was just one gelatin poo in the box, in which case they showed no strong preference. When given the additional choice, between a box with one fake urine clump and a box with one gelatin poo, the cats also preferred the box with the fake poo. When there were MORE obstructions, the cats in the study showed a stronger preference for the clean box.

So what does this study tell us? A box free of obstruction is more important to cats than a box that is completely free of urine or fecal odor. You don’t necessarily need to sanitize your box if you are scooping it daily.

It also suggests what most of us already believed – that cats don’t really mind sharing a box with other cats as long as it’s cleaned regularly. We should note that the cats in this study all lived in groups and got along with the other cats in these groups, so it’s possible that cats who don’t get along might be less open to sharing (although we have no evidence at this time to say that, so someone should get on that study!).

Clumps and logs in the litter may make it harder for cats to find a clean spot to dig in, or might be unpleasant to step on. A bigger box, or more boxes would help with both of these issues, but there’s no way around it:

YOU GOTTA SCOOP!

 

 

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Squirrels Ruin Christmas

I think squirrels just might be my totem animal. Although I am prone to Grinch-like qualities when it comes to the holidays, I have never stolen any Christmas displays. I cannot say the same about my furry rodent friends.

See, Christmas falls right around the time when squirrels have been burying a lot of food, and holiday light bulbs are strangely acorn shaped. To that end, there have been several reports of squirrels stealing and burying Christmas bulbs. One squirrel in Seattle stole over 150 light bulbs in 24 hours, and even Boston Common’s Christmas tree was affected by squirrel thefts.

Canada could not escape the influence of rodents this holiday season, and in Keene NH, a Christmas tree was blown out by a gnawing squirrel.

Karin Brulliard at the Washington Post wrote a great summary on this very topic (and I’m excited to say I got to chat with her about it).

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I did say that I don’t think squirrels have a vendetta against Christmas, but perhaps they just wish everyone would say “Happy Holidays?”

Squirrels might have ruined Christmas, but Christmas saved one squirrel. When a squirrel got stuck down a chimney, a home owner provided him with a string of Christmas lights to shimmy his way to freedom.

Power outages and fires

Twenty customers in Kansas City lost power thanks to a squirrel, but squirrels recently left over a thousand folks without power in the UK. Squirrels caused fires in Fairbury, Nebraska and Allentown, PA (subsequently leaving 7000 folks without power).

Squirrels caused outages in Odessa, TX (trigger warning: a dead squirrel is visible in the photo), Exeter, NHWallingford, CT, and caused a grass fire in West Fork, AK.

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Stuck Squirrels

This German squirrel was too large to sneak out of a manhole. Even olive oil wasn’t enough to slide this guy out, although he was eventually rescued and treated for hypothermia.

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And in Boston, this squirrel was too large for the dog bone he stuck his head into.

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This squirrel got into a squirrel-proof bird feeder, but then could not get out.

On Wiggum Drive, in Leesburg, Virginia, animal control was called to help a squirrel who got stuck in the motor of a dryer.

Finally, a couple thought they had run over a squirrel. Turned out he got stuck under the car “bonnet” and took a several-hours long ride. The squirrel was rescued and did not appear to be harmed by the hitchhiking incident.

Squirrels and the law

A squirrel scratched and bit a contractor who was working on a home in Virginia. The man has since sued the home owners for $90,000, claiming that the squirrel is their pet and that they are responsible for his behavior. The home owners claim no such ownage of the squirrel.

A few years ago, a New York lawsuit over a "squirrel slam" (basically, a squirrel killing, I mean hunting, contest) was dismissed. But recently, the state appellate court determined that Justice Punch violated the plaintiff's rights when he dismissed their case. The squirrel slam is going back to court.

Police blotter

A man got mad at his brother, and then taped a knife to his hand. Apparently intending to stab his brother, he instead went outside and stabbed a squirrel. He was charged with animal cruelty. And I can't make this stuff up!

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A mutilated squirrel was left on a Rexburg, VA doorstep, and a man was caught burning a squirrel with a propane torch in South Dakota.

One squirrel came down a chimney and couldn't find his way back out. While inside, he destroyed some Christmas lights and chewed on a Fender guitar. He burrowed into a loveseat, rendering it useless. The squirrel eventually went back outside.

When this guy took his Lexus in for a tune-up, he got more than he bargained for. A squirrel was kind enough to leave him several walnuts under the hood.

A concerned citizen contacted police in Nevada to report a squirrel who was acting very oddly before it died. There were also calls to police regarding "Christmas lights from a house ...blinding drivers passing by," "someone drinking whiskey," and that someone's "crazy girlfriend was at it again, acting up and throwing things around."

A squirrel has been brazenly walking into a convenience store and helping himself to chocolate Kinder and Crunchie bars without paying. Attempts to retrieve stolen goods by chasing the thief were not successful.

It's not clear if squirrels are deliberately trying to harm humans, but they are gnawing on trees along a freeway in Ireland, which caused several branches to fall in front of cars as they drive by. The treacherous situation led officials to cut down several hundred trees. The resulting stumps have left locals less than thrilled.

A bar in Manchester, England has been a victim of a robbery - two lamps featuring taxidermied squirrels were recently stolen, and apparently the waiting list for replacements is four months long. The owners fear the lamps (or rather the dead squirrel bodies) will be too damaged to repair.

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How do our cats tell us if they aren’t feeling well? Very subtle-y.

Cats are notorious for hiding signs of illness, and if they are lucky, their human takes them to the vet once a year for a check-up. A lot can happen during that year, so what if I told you that there was something easy you could do to help you assess your cat’s health in-between?

Do you have multiple cats and a food management issue? Do you suspect that Buddy is eating all the food while Fluffy nibbles?

Do you have an older cat?

Do you have an overweight cat?

Then I’m here to convince you that you need a scale for your cat. A good way to get a handle on your cat’s health is to weigh them regularly. A scale is not going to tell you WHAT might be wrong, but knowing your cat’s normal weight and tracking changes can help you see if there might be an underlying issue that needs a vet check, or if your cat’s exercise and weight loss plan is paying off. Weight loss is a sign of many chronic illnesses, especially in senior cats. To that end, I encourage you to see a scale as part of your kitty supply kit, alongside with those interactive toys, litter boxes, and scratching posts.

I recently spoke with Dr. Tony Buffington, DVM (whose credentials include being a Veterinary Nutritionist, Professor Emeritus at Ohio State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, and all around amazing guy) about why you should weigh your cat routinely.

Dr. Buffington said a key issue is that, “It can be difficult (for owners) to accurately "guesstimate" changes in a cat's weight, due to conformation, hair coat, etc. Unintentional weight changes raise my "index of suspicion" that a problem may be developing.”

When one of my cats was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease a few years ago, I borrowed a friend’s baby scale so I could track her weight. Well she ended up loving it so much that I just bought one. I really like the scooped baby scales like the one by Health O Meter, because…well, once you add a fleece, it doubles as a great cat bed.

Now if you are thinking, how the heck am I going to get my cat on a scale regularly? Perhaps you already struggle with giving your cat medication, or your cat (like many obese cats) does not enjoy being picked up or held.

Well as Dr. Buffington says, you can “teach your cat to enjoy using (a scale).” In a study he is currently conducting, he and his colleagues “asked participants to weigh their cats every day at first to get them and their cat into the habit of regular weighing (which was found to be one of the best predictors of maintenance of lost weight in humans).” Regular can mean anything from weekly to monthly, depending on your cat.

  1. First step, get the scale and add a comfy blanket, fleece or towel. Put it somewhere safe and cozy, or in a nice sun spot.
  2. Give your cat positive associations with the scale by placing treats nearby. Once your cat is eating the treats, you can lure her onto the scale with more treats.
  3. Lure your cat into a sit position and give more treats!

If you use treats consistently and let your cat get comfortable with the scale on her own terms (rather than picking her up and putting her on it), she will soon see getting on the scale as a way to get treats from you. Tare the scale, and call her – or place the scale somewhere that she learns – this is the time that sitting on the scale = delicious treats. Soon all you have to do is put the scale in this location, and your cat will come on over. Record your cat’s weight, and you’re good to go.

If you don’t think your cat will do this, all I can say is that I was able to train wild squirrels to get on a scale without ever touching them.

 

 

 

 

Training will work on your cat. And if your cat ISN’T older, or ill, or overweight, training them to like the scale now will pay you back in spades later in her life.

In Dr. Buffington’s study, “only one of the eight owners reported difficulty with weighing, partially due to the difficulty of finding a permanent, stable place in his small apartment for the scale, and partly due to his erratic (4th year vet student) schedule.”

If your cat is not that food motivated, try using a toy or catnip or a heated pad to lure her onto the scale, or get her in the habit of eating her meals on the scale.

When is your cat’s weight change a concern? Well, the best person to ask is your veterinarian, because it depends on your cat’s health. Dr. Buffington suggested, that “over 5% of unintended weight change over three months would concern me.”

So, if you resolve to do ONE new thing for your cat this year, I’m saying investing in a scale is an easy thing…and if your cat is anything like mine, she’ll just think you got her a new bed.

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I was really stoked to be interviewed by one of my fave bloggers (and awesome scientist herself) Felicity Muth, about cats, why they need food puzzles, and the future of feline science. You can read the interview here!

felicity

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As promised, I'm back with the rest of the LATEST in squirrel news.

Squirrels and crime

Jon Barbour got in a dispute with his neighbor over feeding squirrels, which he claims help him stay in touch with his deceased parents (I reported the backstory here). He claims his neighbor tried to fight him, and then he shot his neighbor in the butt. Barbour must stand trial, charged with attempted second-degree murder and assault. Barbour since has pled not guilty, and the trial will begin in April of 2017.

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Portland’s police chief shot a friend in the back while squirrel hunting, and tried to saw his friend shot himself. That didn’t go over so well with the friend, and now the chief is stepping down.

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A couple went on vacation, and returned to find their home in a state of disarray. But it turns out the potential burglars loved…nuts. They “arrived back home to find papers and other items strewn about and bowls of nuts throughout the house completely emptied.” The squirrel was caught and set free.

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Apparently, some squirrels enjoy hanging out with the police so much they will jump on their cars and pose for pictures. Maybe they like donuts?

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Squirrels frequently interfere with forensic evidence…by chewing on bones? Yep, it’s true. “The damage rodents can cause and tooth marks they leave, sharp as knife strikes, can both confound and inform crime scene investigators.” These chew marks can make the bones hard to identify, or even obscure signs of trauma.

You can read the scientific article, The Taphonomic Effects of Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) Gnawing on Bone, published in the Journal of Forensic Identification, here.

An Irish community trying to prevent baby red squirrels from being squished by cars is despondent over the loss of two “Caution: Squirrel Crossing” signs. The theft is believed to be the act of pranksters.

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How a squirrel saved a man

When the power company was called to a man’s house to resolve a squirrel-related power outage, it turns out that the man was unconscious in the road. The workers were able to use an automated external defibrillator and CPR to revive the man. The squirrel has been credited with saving the man's life.

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Thieving squirrels

A squirrel broke into a seed display at a Lowe’s store, having a snack, and then taking off before getting caught. Seeds were all over the place.

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And a British squirrel broke into a butcher’s shop, helping himself to some sausage

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No baby’s snacks are safe in the bottom of a stroller. This squirrel proves it.

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Dead squirrel causes chaos

A principal had to call parents when a student showed up with a dead squirrel in his backpack. “Hilarity ensued” (for everyone but the squirrel). Turns out the kid wanted squirrel dumplings for dinner.

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Squirrel scam

A squirrel scam in Dallas has targeted the elderly, with scammers claiming they will remove a squirrel from someone’s attic in exchange for large sums of money. The scammer returns with a dead squirrel (apparently not from the attic), and demands thousands of dollars.

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Squirrels and sex?

A man who runs both a squirrel sanctuary and a sex club on the same property claims cops targeted him and shut the sanctuary down because of the sex club.

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Nursing home attacks

Earlier this month, a nursing home was sent into chaos as a squirrel came in, biting and scratching several residents. The 911 call reveals the state of panic: “It’s still in there and the people are bleeding.” One victim was “bleeding a little uncontrollably.”And an injured woman said “I feel lightheaded. I don’t feel good.”

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When the squirrel returned the next week, a staffer took matters into their own hands, and shot and killed the squirrel with a BB gun.

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Squirrel rescue

Squirrels helping themselves

Firefighters were called to save a squirrel hiding in a car’s wheel well, but the squirrel took off.

And a rescue mission was aborted when a squirrel saved himself. Folks called the fire department to report a squirrel stuck atop a telephone pole, but it turns out he was just chilling.

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But this squirrel was happy to be saved from the dashboard of a car, where she had hidden behind the glove compartment.

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And this squirrel was digging in the dumpster and got his head stuck. The squirrel was anesthetized and rubbed with lots of Vaseline and was eventually twisted out of the small opening in the dumpster.

It’s raining squirrels…hallelujah

More than 200 baby squirrels were blown from their nests during a storm in Virginia

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A squirrel was literally stuck to a fence in Boulder, CO. Luckily the squirrel only suffered superficial injuries and was freed.

A pet squirrel caused a traffic jam in London by getting loose and consequently trapped in a vent under a passenger seat.

And this time a DOG needed rescuing…after chasing a squirrel and falling into the sewer.

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A community divided

A squirrel named Cyril has caused controversy in a British housing development. Turns out some folks love Cyril and feed him nuts, and other folks resent Cyril entering their flats and digging up their plants to bury said nuts. Pest control was called to kill Cyril, but over 5000 people signed a petition to save him; the estate management firm agreed to let Cyril live.

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This week in cute

A squirrel was confused by squirrel statue that had bread on it. I’d be confused too.

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Squirrel meets cat AND a stuffed animal? Is that a cuteness overload?

This squirrel was busy playing with a stuffed animal, when the family cat jumps into the mix.

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A baby squirrel and a bunny don’t seem to know what to think of each other. A lot of hopping ensues.

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He wants IN

bowlofnutsThis squirrel could see the bowl of nuts inside; just open the window!

 

 

Welsh ravers put endangered squirrels at risk

raveI’ve always found ravers kind of annoying…this time they held a giant three day party with loud music right near a colony of red squirrels. Locals are worried that the loud music might have stressed out the endangered rodents.

 

Photobombs

A news reporter was filming a big horn ram when a ground squirrel made a brief appearance.

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Another squirrel showed up in a couple’s engagement photoshoot.

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Who let the nuts out?

Some campers in Canada brazenly left a container of nuts laying around. Perhaps the whisky impaired their judgement, as the nuts were an easy target for a local squirrel.

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History corner

In 1918, Californians were sent on a mission: eradicating the ground squirrel. Even children were enlisted in this failed, $40,000 dollar project, that beckoned residents to “Kill the Squirrels.” What brought on this mass hysteria? Squirrels eating farmers’ crops.

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Basically, I blink and two months have gone by and I have NOT REPORTED ON SQUIRREL ACTIVITY! In case you'd like to know what I have been up to, some shameless self-reporting here:

feldmanI recently spoke with comedian David Feldman about...cats, cats, and more cats.

 

 

 

 

 

And the Berkeley Newscenter recently interviewed me about my research on the food-storing behavior of squirrels.

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The squirrels do not find studying squirrels to be an adequate excuse for not reporting on squirrels.

...continue reading

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Yet here I am, packing my bags to head to DC for the conference of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. This year, one of the themes is feline behavior. That's right, 3 days of nothing but cat people and cat behavior!!! I'm really excited to hang with other cat peeps, including Kris Chandroo, Ingrid Johnson, Julie Hecht, Liz Bales, and Sarah Ellis (and I'm sure many more!). There will be plenty of talks from cat experts I'm excited to hear from!! I'll be tweeting from the conference, and hopefully a blog or two will happen in response!

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This will be a nice break from a semester of data cleaning, writing, teaching, grading, job applications, and consulting! I've been busy and it's really cramping my blog-style! ...continue reading

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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. https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitetrashtexas/4309808872

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. ...continue reading

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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.

...continue reading

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