Most of us are right-handed, with 9% of humans being left-handed, and about 1% leaning toward some level of ambidexterity. But what about our pet cats? Well, thanks to science, we do know a little bit about whether cats are “right-pawed” or “left-pawed.” In fact, there have been at least 9 papers spanning almost 65 years of research looking at the paw preferences of cats. These studies usually use a food-related task, but some have used a light beam or toy to stimulate cats to approach and touch a stimulus. The paw that is used to touch or approach reflects a cat’s “paw preference.”

Previous research has suggested that unlike humans, cat pawedness is a bit all over the place. For example, in 1955, tests of paw preference in 60 cats showed 20% to be right-handed, 38% left-handed, and 42% to be ambidextrous (Cole, 1955). However, these preferences can be very stable, and a 1997 paper reported that 60% of cats used their preferred paw 100 percent of the time (Pike & Maitland, 1997)! The effect of paw-preference also appears to be strongest for a food-related task. When cats are tested with a toy, they seem to be much more ambidextrous in their reaching behavior (Wells & Milsopp, 2009).

There are also sex effects of pawedness in cats. In 1990, researchers tested the paw preferences of 66 cats by having them reach into a hole for a piece of food. Male cats were slightly more likely to be left-pawed, and females were more likely to use their right paw to get the food (Tan et al., 1990). The tendency of males to be lefties and females to be righties has been found in other studies, and in fact, when female cats are given an intramuscular injection of testosterone, their right-paw preference is weakened (Tan et al., 1991).

A new study looked at whether there were breed differences in paw preferences. The study, “Laterality as a tool for assessing breed differences in emotional reactivity in the domestic cat, Felis silvestris catus” was recently published and is open-access in the journal Animals. Now personally, I think the title is a bit misleading, which I’ll get to later. First let’s review the study and what the researchers found.

My cat demonstrating the experimental procedure. She appears to be mostly a lefty.

Cats of four breeds (Persians, Maine Coons, Ragdolls and the hybrid breed Bengals) were tested. These breeds were chosen because they are often described as having distinct personality characteristics related to emotional reactivity. Fifty-six owned cats between the ages of 1 and 9 participated in the study, which occurred in each cat’s home. The cats were tested for paw preference with 50 trials at the Catit Senses Food Maze. The Catit is a tower-style food puzzle that requires cats to fish food out with a paw, and the food in question for this study was “Dreamies” cat treats (note for US readers, Dreamies is just the Euro version of “Temptations!”). Each cat was given 10 treats at a time until they had made 50 choices, and the paw they used to try to get a treat out (regardless of whether they were successful) was recorded. Then the results were analyzed to see if the choices that cats made were different from what you would expect by chance.

Dreamies are known as Temptations in the USA and appear to be delicious to most cats.

As found in previous studies, some cats were left-pawed (45%), some right-pawed (35%) and some ambilateral (20%). As in previous studies, As far as breed differences are concerned, only Bengal cats showed a somewhat consistent paw preference, with over 80% of the 12 Bengal cats being left-paw dominant. Ragdolls and Maine Coons were more likely to have a paw preference than be ambilateral, whereas Persian cats were equally likely to be left-pawed, right-pawed or ambilateral.

So what does it all mean, and should we even care about what paw your cat prefers to use? Generally it appears that all vertebrate (and maybe some invertebrates) show a trait known as lateralization. This means that the separate hemispheres of the brain may be specialized for particular tasks, and the two halves of the brain are not exactly the same in their function or the information they process.

Generally speaking, your dominant limb corresponds to the opposite hemisphere of your brain. Right-handedness reflects the dominance of the left brain hemisphere. So…back to the title of this paper, “Laterality as a tool for assessing breed differences in emotional reactivity in the domestic cat.” Hey, where did the emotional reactivity come from? The research didn’t look at any personality/temperament traits in the cats who were tested, only at their paw preference. So how can laterality help us understand emotional reactivity?

Only Bengals showed a breed-wide tendency to have a paw preference. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Some other research in other species has linked the right hemisphere of the brain with aggressive behavior and heightened responses to threatening stimuli. A previous survey-based study suggested that Bengal cats are highly predatory, and some non-peer reviewed work suggested that Bengals show more aggressive behavior than other breeds of cats. Based on that, the authors make a wee bit of a    s   t   r   e   t   c   h    that the lefty tendencies of Bengals are an indicator of emotional reactivity. Now, that may (or may not) be true, but it’s not what the authors actually tested, which is why I think the title of the paper is rather misleading. And although it’s convenient that their results for Bengals are in the same direction of their prediction, we shouldn’t mistake this for direct evidence of emotional reactivity.

Aside from that, I think this is a nifty study – which you can even replicate in the privacy of your own home if you have cats who are willing! Complementing the paw preference test with other measures of behavior and personality would help us better understand whether there is a relationship between pawed-ness and emotional reactivity. But for now, we can say that for whatever reason, it seems that Bengal cats are definitely left-leaning!

 

References

Cole, J. (1955). Paw preference in cats related to hand preference in animals and men. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology48(2), 137.

Fabre-Thorpe, M., Fagot, J., Lorincz, E., Levesque, F., & Vauclair, J. (1993). Laterality in cats: paw preference and performance in a visuomotor activity. Cortex29(1), 15-24.

Pike, A. V. L., & Maitland, D. P. (1997). Paw preferences in cats (Felis silvestris catus) living in a household environment. Behavioural processes39(3), 241-247.

Tan, Ü., Yaprak, M., & Kutlu, N. (1990). Paw preference in cats: Distribution and sex differences. International Journal of Neuroscience50(3-4), 195-208.

Tan, Ü., Kara, I., & Kutlu, N. (1991). The effects of testosterone on paw preference in adult cats. International journal of neuroscience56(1-4), 187-191.

Wells, D. L., & Millsopp, S. (2009). Lateralized behaviour in the domestic cat, Felis silvestris catusAnimal Behaviour78(2), 537-541.

Wells, D. L., & McDowell, L. J. (2019). Laterality as a tool for assessing Breed differences in emotional reactivity in the domestic cat, Felis silvestris catusAnimals9(9), 647.

 

 

If you’ve ever worked in a shelter or veterinary setting, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve spent some time scruffing cats. Maybe you’ve taken your cat to the vet and the veterinary staff placed your cat in a “scruff-hold.” For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, scruffing is a way of restraining cats, by holding them firmly by the loose skin at the back of the neck. For some cats, this type of handling restricts their movement, which can facilitate handling and various procedures like getting a blood sample. Although scruffing is still a common way to handle cats in veterinary clinics, there is increasing resistance to using this type of handling.

Mother cat carrying kitten. Photo by Margo Akermark via Wikimedia Commons.

Scruffing likely came into fashion because it resembles the way that mother cats handle their kittens – carrying them by the back of their neck. When the momcat does this, kittens are immobilized and likely easier for mom to relocate. Immobility in other species (such as rabbits and rodents) when scruffed is attributed to anti-predator behavior. Scruffing adult cats can have similar effects (induced immobility), although not in all cats. Because the lack of movement experienced by cats during scruffing may be due to fear, rather than a relaxed state, many individuals and organizations are calling for veterinary staff to embrace other handling techniques for cats.

International Cat Care and the American Association of Feline Practitioners have released statements that scruffing should either not be performed, or should not be the routine, “default” method of handling cats who visit a vet clinic. Other organizations, such as the ASPCA, emphasize other methods of cat restraint. Various certifications are now available for training in low-stress handling, fear-free veterinary practice, and cat-friendly practices.

Now this is all well and good, but as can happen, sometimes people endorse a practice without a strong evidence base. Until the past few months, there have been few published studies related to cat restraint, and whether or not certain handling methods are truly stressful to cats. Dr. Carly Moody devoted her dissertation research to the exploration of various aspects of cat restraint. I blogged about two of her other studies recently, and now she’s got a new paper, hot off the presses, looking at three types of cat restraint.  In “Getting a grip: cats respond negatively to scruffing and clips” published in Veterinary Record, scruffing, clipping, and full-body restraint were compared with passive restraint to see whether they led to stress responses in cats.

Fifty-two shelter cats were tested; all cats experienced passive restraint as a control and ONE of the other forms of restraint. Some cats were held with passive restraint first, and others received the experimental condition first, to control for any order effects of being handled. Cats were first assessed as either friendly or unfriendly (I’d prefer a term like avoidant!) by measuring their approach and response to a stranger and being petted, before the restraint methods were tested.

Photo by Moody et al, from the published manuscript.

In passive restraint (a), cats were handled with minimal pressure and were allowed to stay in the position they preferred. Full-body restraint (b) involved holding the cat on its side, while holding the legs and not allowing much movement. In the scruff condition (c), cats were held by the skin at the back of the neck and was allowed only minimal movement. Finally, in the clip conditionm(d), two Clipnosis clips were applied to the back of the cat’s neck. Clipnosis clips resemble binder clips, and are a way to scruff “hands-free.” All cats were restrained by the same person in the animal shelter’s clinic facility.

The stress measures included ear movement, respiration rate, pupil dilation, lip licking and vocalizations. The results showed that cats undergoing full-body restraint had a higher respiration rate and more vocalizations. Full-body restraint and clips led to more pupil dilation, and all three tested restraint methods led to more ear movements when compared with passive restraint. To summarize, full-body restraint and clips were the most stressful, and scruffing also led to more stress responses when compared to passive restraint. Three indicators of stress (respiration rate, pupil dilation, and ear movements) were consistent with the previous work from this lab. Based on this study, the authors recommend that people do not use full-body or clip restraint, and that scruffing should not be a default method of handling cats.

A few potential weaknesses of the study include the fact that they did not do any medical procedures on the cats to see if there was any relationship between the type of restraint and cat’s behavior during an exam. The full-body restraint involved laying the cats on their side, which was different from the other three conditions, where the cat was typically upright. It is difficult to say whether it was the restraint or the body position that might have led to the stress response.

An example of scruffing plus full-body restraint.

Finally, MY personal experience, is that most handlers who scruff cats, simultaneously place them on their sides in some type of full-body restraint. So it is possible that some people will think that because scruffing was not as stressful as the other tested modes of restraint, that it’s perfectly fine to utilize this form of handling with nary a second thought. It would be great to include this type of handling (scruff + restraining the body) in a future study – it is possible that combining the two techniques is even more stressful than just using one alone.

Scruffing doesn’t prevent biting; many veterinarians have been bitten by cats in practice, and since most clinics (perhaps until recently) likely use scruffing to restrain cats, it is obviously therefore not a guarantee of safety. However, it is a habit that many may find hard to break, especially if they are used to and comfortable scruffing, and not as experienced or comfortable using other methods, such as towel-wrapping or chemical restraint (drugs). Many years ago, when I worked in an animal shelter and handling a lot of cats, I was doing a lot of scruffing! That was the norm. In my current work situation, I’m not routinely restraining cats anymore. But if I were back in that position, I’d be ready to try something different.

At the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, we teach a cat handling lab to first year students, and the mantra is “EBY – Even Better Yet” – what can we do better to handle animals safely, and in a manner that is likely to reduce stressful responses in the present and during future veterinary visits. These students have typically been trained to scruff cats by default. Sometimes they express resistance to trying something new; but hopefully with practice and increasing evidence that scruffing increases stress, they will get more comfortable with other, less-stressful techniques.

Kitty in a towel wrap. Photo by Kerri Lee Smith via Flickr/Creative Commons License https://www.flickr.com/photos/77654185@N07/26719456934

I was recently inspired when my friend Ellen Carozza, LVT told me that her veterinary practice has been “scruff-free” for almost 20 years. And she still has all of her fingers! She has been a strong advocate for providing cats with a safe and low-stress experience at the vet clinic, and has excellent videos of how the staff at her clinic handle “difficult” or “aggressive” cats, including several types of towel wraps. It’s hard to argue with 20 years of proof that it’s not necessary for effective treatment of cats (when we tell the first year vet students that there are scruff-free cat clinics, it blows their minds!). But think of it this way – if aversive restraint techniques were just not allowed or available to you – what would you do instead? And now it’s hard to argue with the mounting scientific evidence that when it comes to handling cats, “less is more.”

 

Reference

Moody, CM.Mason, GJ.Dewey, CE.Niel, L.
(2019) Getting a grip: cats respond negatively to scruffing and clips

What do cats love about their litter box? Well it might depend…as I’ve blogged about before, research as clearly demonstrated the importance of cleanliness, and we can use cats’ behaviors to help us better understand when they are having a good experience in their kitty commode. And when they aren’t having a good experience? That is when you are likely to find cat urine on your backpack, your bathmat, your bed, your tub, your fruit basket, your shoes, oh and all kinds of other very strange and interesting places.

A new study adds another piece to the puzzle, testing the effect of a litter attractant on the box behaviors of sixteen cats.

The study, The behavioural effects of innovative litter designed to attract cats, was a collaboration between the University of Guelph, Purdue, and the funders, the Kent Pet Group (more on them later). Previous studies have shown that cats prefer clay clumping litter compared to other types (pellets and pearls). Likely due to the sensitive nature of cats’ feet as well as their desire to dig and scratch in a substrate before and after eliminating, they prefer a very fine-grained litter.

 

However, some cat owners do not like clay litter, and are looking for something that might be more environmentally friendly, or less dusty than clay litter, which can often send them down to the pet store in search of alternatives. Sometimes those alternatives cause more problems than they solve (TIDY CAT BREEZE and FELINE PINE, I’m looking at you – your products should come with warning labels). But how do cats feel about alternative litters? And can they be made more attractive with an “attractant”? That’s what the current study sought to find out.

The cats were brought into the lab from an animal shelter for about a month - the duration of the study (and they were all adopted out into homes after the study). The cats were housed in groups of eight, and their room had perches, hiding spots, beds and toys. The cats received social visits during the study.

Picture by Frayne et al., via a Creative Commons License.

Each group of cats had access to eight litter boxes that were cleaned twice daily. At first, half of the boxes had clay litter and the other half had a plant-based litter, and the cats were gradually transitioned to 100% plant-based litter by mixing the two, increasing the amount of plant-based litter in the clay litter boxes each day.

After about a week of transitioning, the test began, which was to compare the cats’ use of plant-based (PB) litter with a PB litter that included an ”attractant” (PB+ATTRACT; although the nature of this attractant is not revealed). Half of the boxes had PB+ATTRACT in them and the other half just had plain old PB litter. Video cameras were installed so litter box behaviors (digging, covering, number of paws in the box, sniffing, and whether the cat actually peed or pooped) could be assessed over the next few weeks.

The key findings included that, NO SURPRISE!! Cats really went to town in the box right after it had been scooped. They also seemed to prefer the location of one box (#3) and used that one more than any other box, which may have impacted the results (this box contained the plain PB litter without attractant added). Also, none of the cats eliminated anywhere besides a litter box during the duration of the study.

Did the cats prefer the litter with the attractant? The only difference was that the cats urinated significantly more often in the PB+ATTRACT litter. There were more effects of the sex of the cat, such that males spent more time covering and sniffing their eliminations compared to the female cats in the study. This behavioral difference has been found in other studies and likely reflects some of the behaviors related to mating that are retained even in neutered cats.

As I’ve mentioned before, litter box use does not equal preference. This study would have been strengthened if they had compared the PB litter with a clay-based litter of similar texture. But I think that would have gone against the funding source’s interest. The Kent Group, who funded the study, is the maker of “World’s Best Cat Litter” – so I’m guessing that the unnamed products in this study are WBCL and their new formulation that includes an “attractant.” My own experience as a consultant is that plenty of cats will use this litter, but a fair amount will not, and when tested with other choices, cats do not tend to prefer it.  I appreciate that a company is willing to publish their findings, as many corporations keep their research under wraps.

Is this how your cats perceive their litter boxes?
Picture by Jeff Barton via a Creative Commons License

Behaviors were only recorded during daytime hours, which may have limited observations of some cats who may prefer to eliminate overnight. The researchers also could have rotated the positions of the litter boxes with PB and PB+ATTRACT litter to eliminate any influence of litter box location. Another issue with the way the study was set up is that all of the litter boxes were in the same general location, which is not recommended in a home environment. Cats may experience multiple litter boxes that are side by side as one “elimination area” rather than separate boxes, which may make the area less attractive (think of the difference to us between a public restroom with a bunch of stalls versus one that is private!). This litter box crowding may have made some cats uncomfortable when eliminating, especially if all cats were interested in using the boxes right after they had been cleaned. An alternative approach would have been to have multiple locations in the enclosure that had the two types of litter side by side.

The finding that cats preferred to urinate in PB+ATTRACT litter is important – urinating outside of the box is an issue that sends many cats to the shelter, or even to their death, so anything that increases a cat’s interest in the litter box is good to be aware of. However, my mantra for your own cat is to give them some choices (here's a quick guide), and let them tell you what they like…and SCOOP SCOOP SCOOP!!!!!!!

Reference:

Frayne, J., Murray, S. M., Croney, C., Flickinger, E., Edwards, M., & Shoveller, A. K. (2019). The Behavioural Effects of Innovative Litter Developed to Attract Cats. Animals9(9), 683.

Did you know that cats should see their veterinarian at least once a year? That’s right, even if they are indoors only and seem healthy, it’s good to have a check-up. A big reason that people do not take their cat in for regular care (aside from money) is the stress they perceive that their cat experiences. A survey found that 38% of cat owners reported that they get stressed out just thinking about taking their cat to the vet, and 58% say their cat hates going to the vet. I’ve previously written about how training your cat to love a carrier can make this whole process a LOT easier. But what about what happens AT the vet?

Passive versus full-body restraint. Image from Moody et al., 2019

Researchers at the Ontario Veterinary College have published two studies exploring how the way cats are handled at the vet might effect their behavior.  The premise of both studies was comparing responses to what the authors call “passive restraint” (defined as handling the cat lightly in a position of the cat’s choosing) and “full-body restraint” (holding the cat on their side, while grabbing the cat’s legs, preventing movement of the head, body and limbs).

 

 

Both studies included (I think the same) 51 healthy adult shelter cats. All cats were first categorized as either friendly or unfriendly according to an “Unfamiliar Person” test. Each cat was individually placed in a room in a carrier. The carrier door was opened and the cat was given two minutes to choose to exit the carrier, explore the room, and approach the experimenter (an unfamiliar person). If at the end of two minutes, the cat was still in the carrier, the experimenter removed the top of the carrier and left the room, and the cat was given another minute to explore. At that point, the experimenter approached and attempted to pet the cat. Friendly cats had to leave the carrier, approach the experimenter within about a foot and a half, and allow petting. Twenty-four cats were categorized as friendly, and 23 as unfriendly.

Next, all cats were given a two-minute “mock” physical exam using either passive or full-body restraint. The experimenters measured how long it took to restrain the cat, as well as the presence of ear movements, tail lashing, lip licking, respiratory rate, and amount of pupil dilation to assess stress responses to both types of handling. Two cats in each condition were not able to be examined due to aggressive behavior.

Lip licking can be a sign of stress. Photo via Public Domain Pictures.

Now for the results of the first study “Can you handle it? Validating negative responses to restraint in cats”: it took longer to get cats into full-body restraint than passive restraint. Full-body restraint also resulted in a higher respiratory rate and more lip licking. Cats who had been subjected to full-body restraint were quicker to jump off the examination table. The authors concluded that the full-body restraint increases the activation of a cat’s stress system, and the attempts to escape the exam table suggest that those cats found the experience more aversive than the cats in the passive restraint condition.

Image from Moody et al., 2019

Fast-forward to 2019. The second study that was just published earlier this year in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, titled “Testing two behavioural paradigms for measuring post-handling cat aversion behavior,” looked at whether cats found the handler threatening AFTER being placed in either full-body or passive restraint. After the two-minute exam, cats were given two tests to assess how they felt about the person who did the exam. For the first, cats had previously been trained to walk down a runway for treats. Only 38 of the shelter cats were able to be trained to complete this task. The cat was placed on the runway, with the handler at the other end, and the experimenters recorded whether the cat approached or moved away from the handler.

There were no differences in the time it took cats to approach the handler, regardless of whether they had been subjected to passive or full-body restraint. Because no differences were found, and because a sizeable number of cats could not be trained to use the walkway, it appears that this is not a good measure of aversion responses in cats.

The apparatus used to test location preference. From Moody et al., 2019.

But wait, there’s more! The researchers next tested whether cats would form negative associations with a LOCATION after full-body restraint compared to passive. This study included 45 shelter cats and 10 adult laboratory cats who were group housed. All cats were subjected to BOTH restraint methods for one full minute, but in two different, visually distinct compartments of an enclosure. After the cat had been restrained, they were allowed to choose which side of the compartment they wanted to stay in – the one they had been passively restrained in, or the one in which they received full-body restraint. All laboratory cats, and the “friendly” shelter cats spent more time in the passive compartment; the “unfriendly” shelter cats were equally torn between compartments, perhaps finding both types of handling aversive.

From these studies, we can conclude that overall, cats have fewer stress-responses to passive restraint. For some cats, particularly the friendly ones, those stress-responses carried over to preferring the location that they had received passive restraint in compared to full-body restraint. However, the cats subjected to full-body restraint were no more or less likely to approach the person who had restrained her compared to the passively restrained cats, so to answer my original question, it doesn’t appear that cats hold much of a grudge if any.

Cat handling is a hot topic for a lot of reasons, and the trend of “less is more” can be found in several movements to help make the veterinary experience better for cats (e.g., Cat Friendly Practice, Fear Free and Low-Stress Handling programs). I feel like I should mention that “scruffing” or the restraint of cats by holding the skin of their neck is NOT what was tested in this study. I bring this up because scruffing is a commonly used method of restraint that is considered outdated and a bit  controversial, and unfortunately I know of no research to condemn or condone its use. Two studies (here and here) did not find strong evidence for aversive responses to a handling technique called “clipnosis” or pinch-induced behavioral inhibition in cats, which is sort of similar to scruffing. Regardless, the consensus is that cats should never be LIFTED by their scruff.

And, when we teach cat handling at the veterinary school, the messages that we try to leave in the student’s minds are, “do you automatically default to heavy handed techniques, and if so – why?"  and “EBYs (Even Better Yets)” – what can we do better next time?

References

Moody, C. M., Picketts, V. A., Mason, G. J., Dewey, C. E., & Niel, L. (2018). Can you handle it? Validating negative responses to restraint in cats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science204, 94-100.

Moody, C. M., Mason, G. J., Dewey, C. E., Landsberg, G. M., & Niel, L. (2019). Testing two behavioural paradigms for measuring post-handling cat aversion behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science210, 73-80.

Nuti, V., Cantile, C., Gazzano, A., Sighieri, C., & Mariti, C. (2016). Pinch-induced behavioural inhibition (clipthesia) as a restraint method for cats during veterinary examinations: preliminary results on cat susceptibility and welfare. Animal Welfare25(1), 115-123.

Pozza, M. E., Stella, J. L., Chappuis-Gagnon, A. C., Wagner, S. O., & Buffington, C. T. (2008). Pinch-induced behavioral inhibition (‘clipnosis’) in domestic cats. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery10(1), 82-87.

A recent study, “Stable individual differences in vocalisation and motor activity during acute stress in the domestic cat,” from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City looked at whether or not adult cats were consistent in how much they vocalized and moved around in a repeated stressful situation. The stressful situation in question was being placed in a cat carrier three times (with one week between each testing session) to see how consistent each cat’s behavior was.


Photo by Hiroshi Shimizu

The behaviors in question were primarily the number of meows, but also how much movement each cat showed. Why meowing and activity? “Isolation calls” are commonly used to look at stress responses because animals tend to vocalize a lot when they are socially isolated. For example, kittens in a previous study by the same team at UNAM would meow and wiggle around a lot when separated from their mothers. The studies showed that the amount of meowing and activity was consistent within individuals across experimental sessions. What that means is that kittens who were more vocal and active compared to other kittens at one week of age were are also more vocal and active compared to other kittens at two and three weeks of age. From this the authors concluded that the responses to stress (vocalizing and being active) were stable behavioral responses that might reflect personality.

So that was in kittens who were very small (under a month old)...so what about adult cats? The study included 40 adult shelter cats, between 8 months and 11 years old. All of the cats were healthy, and had cat beds, toys, litter boxes, food, and water - all that good stuff - in the shelter. The researchers brought each cat into an unfamiliar testing room and then they placed the cat inside a standard cat carrier. They left the cat alone in the room in the carrier for 2 minutes. After 2 minutes they took the cat out of the carrier and put them back into their standard shelter housing. All of the trials were video recorded.

So what happened? First of all, there was an effect of age, such that older cats meowed less than younger cats.  Further analyses revealed that during the first trial the cats were more active while being confined in the carrier, but as trials continued, the cats moved less. Perhaps they habituated to being in the carrier across the three sessions. Motor activity was not a stable measure because the cats were generally not very consistent in how active they were between weeks.

The number of vocalizations did not vary statistically between trials -- there was consistency within an individual cat as to how much they meowed on each trial compared to other cats. Cats who meowed more in the carrier in week one were more likely to more the second and third times they were in a carrier. This is very similar to what the same researchers found regarding kittens!

There was no relationship between meowing and activity. Motor activity and vocalization may reflect two different aspects of responding to stress;  perhaps vocalizing is more related to fear or the separation, and activity may be more related to how an animal responds to a stressful situation -- do they have a more active or passive style?  Are they trying to get out or of the carrier, are they frustrated or maybe they are more fearful and trying to lay low for safety reasons?

The researchers concluded that activity is maybe not the most consistent way to measure stress but vocalisation seems to be a potentially repeatable marker of stress in non-human animals. This finding is similar to what has been revealed in cows, pigs, horses, kittens and now adult cats! Vocalizations are also often linked to negative emotional states. The researchers propose  that measuring vocalization may be an efficient way to measure the emotional state of animals, keeping in mind that in cats both the presence and absence of vocalization can be related to high levels of stress...so context is probably very important!!

The researchers propose that in the future looking at vocalizations in relationship to other stress responses (e.g., heart rate variability, stress hormones) could help determine whether or not vocalization is a good measure of being stressed out. Because meowing was consistent across the trials, how talkative a cat is in different situations may be one aspect of “stable individual differences” -- aka “purrsonality.”

References

Urrutia, A., Martínez-Byer, S., Szenczi, P., Hudson, R., & Bánszegi, O. (2019). Stable individual differences in vocalisation and motor activity during acute stress in the domestic cat. Behavioural Processes.
Hudson, R., Chacha, J., Bánszegi, O., Szenczi, P., & Rödel, H. G. (2017). Highly stable individual differences in the emission of separation calls during early development in the domestic cat. Developmental Psychobiology, 59(3), 367-374.

We are lucky to be in a time where more people are studying cat behavior.  But what are some of the best methods we should use to understand cats better?  A new study looks at whether not placing a camera on a cat directly is a good way to determine what the heck they’re getting up to.  Sometimes it’s difficult to observe cats at all times, or they may change their behavior when people are around, so a catcam would be handy way to observe cats in a remote way. 

One of the cats in the study.

The study, titled The Use of Animal-Borne Cameras to Video-track the Behavior of Domestic Cats started by placing small cameras on 21 pet cats with outdoor access.  The cameras weighed around 32 g which is well within the recommended weight guidelines for placing objects on animals to track their behavior.  Cats who seemed bothered by wearing the camera (5 cats) were removed from the study, leading 16 cats remaining in the study.  These cameras were able to generate video footage from the cat’s point of view. 

In order to determine if what was seen on the cat camera was a good way to determine what the cat was actually up to, the researchers also simultaneously filmed the cats during a significant portion of the study, so they could directly compare what they observed with what the catcam observed.

The authors observed 36 different behaviors including sleeping, walking, jumping, eating, hunting, digging…  and these behaviors were based on a previous study that provided a very detailed ethogram (a detailed catalog of all observed behaviors ) of what felines do.

After the researchers had generated all of this video footage, it needed to be coded and validated.  They tried a few different methods of quantifying what they observed: one was to code everything -- we call this continuous observation.  Then they also went through and checked the video every 10 seconds and noted what the cat was doing.  This “instantaneous” sampling of behavior could be a big time saver if effective.  Coding hours of video is a very labor-intensive endeavor, even though it provides a very thorough picture of what is happening.  So by comparing that continuous observation with the instantaneous observation, the authors could determine whether or not you can use a shortcut.  Finally, the authors wanted to know the minimum amount of footage that was needed to accurately represent what the cats were getting up to.

The results suggested that many behaviors could be determined from the catcam generated footage alone.  These included vocalizations, scratching an object, grooming, eating, and jumping.  However, some specific behaviors were difficult to distinguish based on the camera footage, such that a general category of behavior could be determined, but the specific behavior was a bit more challenging to identify, such as resting vs. lying down, or walking vs. trotting.

Some behaviors, like scratching, could be easily distinguished from catcam footage. Picture courtesy of Artyangel/Pixelbay:
https://pixabay.com/photos/cat-animal-scratching-2576794/

The ability to use instantaneous sampling as an accurate representation of behavior was highly dependent on the type of behavior as well as its frequency.  Common behaviors that are very brief in duration such as vocalizations or jumping were often missed.  Behaviors such as lying down or walking were easier to get accurate representation using the instantaneous sampling because they are more common and also tend to be longer in duration.  The authors also recommended that individual cats be observed at least 40 times to get an accurate sense of how they spend their time, keeping in mind that their sessions were a minimum of 8 minutes of observation (but the average length of their sessions was over an hour).

This study provides us with important guidelines for how we study cats, in this case these were cats with outdoor access.  A lot of times we just look at research results, without really diving deep into the methods.  Another nice thing is that the authors provide a lot of cool video footage from the study, and if you’re interested in how people study cats I recommend that you take a look.  Unfortunately, it seems like taking shortcuts when it comes to observing cat behavior may come at a price.  But depending on your research question, there may be times where it’s equally effective.  Cameras that are worn by animals are just one of many cool new ways to use technology to better understand cat behavior!

Huck, M., & Watson, S. (2019). The use of animal-borne cameras to video-track the behaviour of domestic cats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.


I am a big fan of new behavioral studies that can help cats, and I’m also a big fan of using clicker training with cats. So when I saw a new study, “Clicker training increases exploratory behavior and time spent at the front of the enclosure in shelter cats,” had been published, I was very excited to check it out.

Unfortunately, the paper is a good example of why we have to be careful about drawing conclusions from research and for those of us who do research, why we have to be careful about how we design studies.

Picture by Dilara Goksel Parry

There’s no doubt that shelters are a stressful environment for most cats. Being in a shelter usually means that cats have been removed from their familiar territory and all that is contains (smells, sounds, familiar humans and other animals). There are other animals present in distress, and cats may have to be handled for medical treatment, and may not have the ability to escape fear-provoking stimuli. Previous studies have shown that a hiding space, enrichment, and some types of handling can provide benefits for shelter cats.

The current study intended to determine if clicker training for shelter cats could improve their outcomes by increasing activity and exploratory behaviors, things that might help shelter cats get adopted more quickly. The study included twelve singly-housed cats in an animal shelter, who received 10 minutes of clicker training, 3 times a week for two weeks.

Cats were first trained to make a connection between the clicker sound and a food reinforcement (we call this “charging the clicker”). Next, the trainer made the clicker sound and offered food any time the cat made a movement toward them, essentially shaping the cat to approach the front of their enclosure in exchange for a treat.

The results appear impressive – by the end of two weeks, cats spent more time at the front of the cage, and more time exploring. The training had no effect on whether cats showed more “friendly” behaviors (as rated by the “Human Approach Test,” or HAT, which assesses how cats respond to strange humans – do they approach or sniff an offered hand, or withdraw or show signs of aggression?). This all sounds great!! So where did things go wrong?

The fatal flaw in this study is that there is no control group – meaning a group of cats who did not receive the clicker training but were also tested for improvements in activity, exploration, and friendly behaviors. As someone who spent many years working in an animal shelter, I can attest to the fact that most cats will improve with time in a shelter environment just because they adjust to their new environment. In fact, previous research has shown that cats’ stress levels in novel environments improves significantly in 14 days…the same time frame as that in the clicker training study.

Without a control group, it is NOT POSSIBLE to say that the clicker training contributed anything to the improvements in behavior observed in these cats. It’s a behavioral equivalent of a placebo effect – these cats may have improved significantly with or without clicker training.

Another concern with this study is that the researchers did not control for how long the cats had been in the shelter when the clicker training was started. The range of time the cats had been in the study at the start of clicker training ranged from 2 to 21 days. If you looked at the four cats who improved on HAT scores, they had an average length of stay of 14.5 days when training began, compared to the other eight cats who had been in the shelter an average of 6.25 days when training started, again supporting a strong effect for time in the shelter on the cats’ behavior.

I don’t really like blogging to tear apart a study – doing research is difficult, and when doing research there are often minor flaws or things that if we could go back in time, we would do differently, no doubt. But the flaw in this study as presented is so fatal, that I’m surprised it was published as is (even the title suggests experimental support for the hypothesis that clicker training effects shelter cat behavior).

The sad thing is that this flaw could have easily been fixed just by having a control group of cats who did not receive clicker training, and seeing whether and how much their behavior changed during the same two week period (ideally, matching those cats to the clicker trained cats on how long they had already been in the shelter). If the researchers had done this, we might be playing a whole different ballgame folks.

Because when you do science, you can’t just think about what might prove your idea or hypothesis (“clicker training will increase activity in two weeks”) – you have to think about what would DISPROVE your idea or hypothesis – what are the OTHER possible explanations (“cats will become more active in the shelter in two weeks without clicker training,” “cats will become more active in a shelter in two weeks if they are offered toys to play with” etc.). Especially when it has already been demonstrated that cats improve in a new environment in about two weeks ANYWAY, to not control for this factor is doing the field of cat behavior research a disservice.

There are some classic writings on how to think about these issues when doing science, first of all, John Platt’s “Strong Inference” and Richard Chamberlain’s 1965 paper “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses” are every bit as relevant today as they were when published over 50 years ago (and should be required reading for anyone who is “science-ing”). The overarching messages: design your studies to get clean results, consider alternative possible explanations, and try to control for them. This is why including placebos and blinding folks is the gold standard for testing new medical treatments.

Hopefully someone will take the initiative to test the effects of clicker training on cats with these messages in mind in the future, so we can know for sure whether clicker training offers additional benefits for shelter cats above and beyond the effects of just getting comfortable with more time in the shelter.

References

Chamberlin, T. C. (1965). The method of multiple working hypotheses. Science, 754-759.

Gourkow, N., & Phillips, C. J. (2015). Effect of interactions with humans on behaviour, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease of shelter cats rated as contented on arrival. Preventive Veterinary Medicine121(3-4), 288-296.

Grant, R. A., & Warrior, J. R. (2019). Clicker training increases exploratory behaviour and time spent at the front of the enclosure in shelter cats; Implications for welfare and adoption rates. Applied Animal Behaviour Science211, 77-83.

Kessler, M. R., & Turner, D. C. (1997). Stress and adaptation of cats (Felis silvestris catus) housed singly, in pairs and in groups in boarding catteries. Animal Welfare6(3), 243-254.

Platt, J. R. (1964). Strong inference. Science146(3642), 347-353.

Stella, J. L., Croney, C. C., & Buffington, C. T. (2017). Behavior and welfare of domestic cats housed in cages larger than US norm. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science20(3), 296-312.

Image courtesy of Pixabay
https://pixabay.com/en/cat-amplifier-headphones-springtime-2624727/

I love music – always have. I listen a lot – while I’m working, while I’m cooking, while I’m driving, running, if I’m not sleeping there might be some music in the background (right now, it’s Bob Mould’s new album, “Sunshine Rock”). But does my cat enjoy it? Well, given that I like loud music of the punk rock type, probably not so much. In 2015, a study of anesthetized cats showed that compared to heavy metal music and pop music, when cats are getting spayed, they would prefer a little classical music. This was determined by measuring each cat’s respiratory rate and pupil dilation, both of which were lowest when cats were subjected to classical music (for the record, the musical choices were  ‘Adagio For Strings (Opus 11)’ by Samuel Barber;  ‘Thorn’ by Natalie Imbruglia; and  ‘Thunderstruck’ by AC/DC.).

More recently, researchers looked at whether music might reduce stress for cats receiving a medical exam at the veterinary office. Further, they were interested in whether “cat specific music” would provide benefits compared to classical music or silence. The study, “Effects of music on behavior and physiological stress response of domestic cats in a veterinary clinic,” was recently published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.

I’ve written about “Music for Cats” previously – its distinguishing factors perhaps not so much the quality of the tunes, but the sounds created for their similarities to purring and other sounds that cats might find attractive (like squeaking noises and suckling sounds).

To test the responses of cats, the researchers tested 20 cats with all three musical conditions (cat music, classical music, silence). Each condition was tested on a different date (with two weeks between each test). When cats arrived at the veterinary hospital, they were placed in an exam room with the musical stimuli for 10 minutes. Then they were given a basic physical exam, including the collection of a blood sample, while the music played on. A “Cat Stress Score (CSS)” was recorded at three time points: before the music began, during the physical examination, and after the music was turned off and the physical exam was over. Cats were also given a “Handling Score (HS)” during the physical exam by the person conducting the exam. Finally, that blood sample was used to look at neutrophil:lymphocyte ratio (NLR). NLR has been associated with stress and distress behaviors in other species, although in a study of rats, it was associated with chronic, rather than short-term stress.

For a little more context, the Cat Stress Score is a commonly used measure looking at various aspects of cat body language. The score can range from “1” (fully relaxed, for example, laying on side, eyes closed, head on the surface, sleeping) to “7” (terrorized, crouching and shaking, flattened ears, yowling). The Handling Score rates the overall demeanor of a cat, ranging in possible scores from “0” – “friendly and confident” up to “25” (overtly aggressive), with three categories in between: friendly and shy, withdrawn and protective, and withdrawn and aggressive.

A relaxed cat! Photo via creative commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/28342973473

Results suggested that the Handling Scores and Cat Stress Scores were lower during the physical exam when cats were listening to “Cat Music” compared to classical music and silence, which were not different from one another for either score.  Cats who had been listening to “Cat Music” also had lower CSS’s during the post-physical exam period. From the graphs, it appears that cats listening to Cat Music had average CSS’s of 2 (weakly relaxed) compared to the other cats who scored 3’s on average (“weakly tense”). The handling scores of all cats averaged around 2, on a scale of 1-25, all falling well in the range described as “friendly and shy.” There were no differences found in any of the groups for the measures of NLR.

The study provides some evidence for the positive responses of cats to “Cat Music.” The one caveat being that overall, although “statistically significant,” the actual differences between the groups were relatively small (meaning that the differences in CSS and HS scores were 1-2 points on average). It is also unclear why the different musical conditions did not lead to differences in NLR in any of the cats. All cast had slightly elevated NLRs compared to normal averages. The authors hypothesize that perhaps the car ride before the veterinary exam may have increased the NLR in all cats, making it hard to determine the effects of the music.

Despite small effect sizes and no change in NLR, anything we can do to reduce stress for cats during veterinary exams, is worth considering! In addition to other stress reducing techniques (such as non-slip mats and towels on exam tables, examining a cat in their carrier if that is where they want to be examined, minimizing wait times in lobbies, and providing cats with treats if they are willing), Cat Music is another tool that veterinarians might want to add to their exam room toolbox!

References

Hampton, A., Ford, A., Cox, R., Liu, C., Koh, R. (2019). Effects of music on behavior and physiological stress response of domestic cats in a veterinary clinic. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, https://doi.org/10.1177/1098612X19828131

Kessler, M. R., & Turner, D. C. (1999). Effects of density and cage size on stress in domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) housed in animal shelters and boarding catteries. Animal Welfare8(3), 259-267.

Mira, F., Costa, A., Mendes, E., Azevedo, P., & Carreira, L. M. (2016). Influence of music and its genres on respiratory rate and pupil diameter variations in cats under general anaesthesia: contribution to promoting patient safety. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery18(2), 150-159.

Swan, M. P., & Hickman, D. L. (2014). Evaluation of the neutrophil-lymphocyte ratio as a measure of distress in rats. Lab Animal43(8), 276.

Zeiler, G. E., Fosgate, G. T., Van Vollenhoven, E., & Rioja, E. (2014). Assessment of behavioural changes in domestic cats during short-term hospitalisation. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery16(6), 499-503.

First of all, thanks for reading and following!

I really appreciate you being there and being interested in cats and animal behavior! For those of you who are new to the blog, I encourage you to dig around and read some of my previous posts over at catsandsquirrels.com -- perhaps you'd like to know how cats use olfactory cues? Or why cats need places to hide to be happy? 

I was super excited to get to spend some time talking cats with the super-cool Alie Ward, and the results of our conversation are available for you to listen to over at the Ologies podcast!

Last month I also had the honor of speaking to a sold out crowd at the San Diego Natural History Museum about "The Science of a Happy Cat." Missed it? Don't despair, I'll be giving the talk (with a few minor tweaks here and there) at Cat Camp in NYC this June. Tickets for Cat Camp are on sale now!

What occupies my time these days (and prevents me from writing more blog posts!) is my work at UC Davis, where I'm a postdoctoral researcher. I'm working on a few projects, including the best ways to care for delicate neonatal kittens. KQED's Deep Look did an amazing up close video (what's cuter than kittens up close??) including a shout out to our project. Check it out!

Speaking of kittens, we're holding a one-day KITTEN CONFERENCE at UC Davis on Saturday, April 27th. I'll be discussing some of our kitten-related research, but the conference will feature many amazing speakers, such as Hannah Shaw (the "Kitten Lady") and LVT Ellen Carozza.  Registration is OPEN!! For those of you who can't attend, a webinar option is available!!

And while we are on the topic of research, Dr. Tony Buffington and I are also JUST LAUNCHING a new survey-based study. If you are 18 years of age or older and your cat is between 1 and 10 years of age, please consider filling out this web-based survey about your cat and your home environment. Your responses will help us learn more about relations between cats, their homes, and feline health and welfare. 

Here's a link to  TAKE THE SURVEY! and feel free to share widely!



One of my favorite topics when it comes to cats is play! I spoke with Barry Bergman about cats for this big-picture article on why play is important for all animals!

Yes, it was an honor to have the BBC and PBS include me and some of my dissertation research in this squirrel documentary. Now available stateside on Nature!



Want cats to love you? I wrote this article for Mental Floss on the science behind making friends with cats.

Yes you can train cats. But it's important to know how. I spoke to National Geographic about the basics of cat training.

Some behaviors that cat owners find problematic are in many cases just normal cat behaviors. Scratching is one of those commonly reported “nuisance behaviors” which is a perfectly natural behavior for cats. However, if not directed toward acceptable objects, feline scratching can lead to humans living with shredded couches; in some cases humans resort to painful and potentially harmful procedures, such as amputation of the cat’s toes (commonly referred to as “declawing”; I’ve written about the potential harms of declawing here).

A new study aimed to learn more about what cats scratch in homes, and what owners do in response. The results of the study, “Survey of cat owners on features of, and preventative measures for, feline scratching of inappropriate objects: a pilot study” were recently published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.

One hundred and sixteen cat owners who brought their cats to the veterinary clinic at the University of Georgia participated in the survey. In addition to your usual household demographic questions, participants were asked if their cat scratched any objects “not designated for scratching” and if so, to describe the type of object, the material, and the angle of the object in relation to the floor (e.g., horizontal or vertical). They were asked to detail how often their cat scratched the object(s) in question, the techniques they used to stop scratching behavior, whether they provided their cat with designated items for scratching, and how they encouraged their cat to use the designated item.

The cats in the study ranged in age from 1 month to 18 years, were pretty evenly distributed between the sexes, and were mostly (79.3%) indoors-only and spayed/neutered (85.2%). Eighty-seven percent of cats still had their claws (why include declawed cats in a study of undesirable scratching behavior?).

A whopping 83.9% of respondents reported that their cat scratched inappropriate items, with the majority of cats scratching said items daily. Cats overall preferred fabric chairs, sofas and other furniture – primarily things that are vertical in relation to the floor – but they also really loved carpets for scratching. Despite the frequency and type of objects scratched, owners estimated the damage at less than $100 for more scratching (y’all got some cheap couches in Georgia?).

Owners reported several ways they tried to get their cats to stop scratching, including yelling, spanking, spraying water on their cat, covering furniture with tinfoil, and providing their cat with a designated scratching item. None of these techniques was related to the reported frequency of “inappropriate scratching.”

Most cats in the study were provided with a scratching item. Photo via Flicker by Melissa Wiese https://www.flickr.com/photos/42dreams/1009400100 via Creative Commons.

Most cats (76.1%) were provided with a designated scratching item, often a scratching pole or pad. Most poles were carpet, sisal or a combination of the two; and most scratch pads were made of cardboard. Cat owners also had several methods for trying to get their cat to use the scratching item, including praise, catnip, treats, playing with a toy nearby, or placing their cat near the scratching item. No particular method was associated with success or failure, except placing the cat nearby, which was associated with less, not more, success.

The study gives us some insight into what cats are doing in the homes, and what humans are doing in response. I have a few minor quibbles with the study, one being that the data is really old – collected in 2011; in the past seven years, there’s been a bit of a cat “renaissance” – the options for cat trees and scratching objects has really expanded and hopefully nowadays cats are being provided with more and better options for scratching (I can dare to dream, can't I?).

The sample size is relatively small, focuses on cat owners in one city, and we don’t know how representative it is of all cat owners. That said, internet samples have their own problem in that pet owners who are willing to fill out surveys are also not always representative of all pet owners, so it’s nice to see a study that relied on pen and paper surveys with real people!

Many cats in this study were provided with scratching items, but still scratched other things. Whether the designated scratching items met cats’ needs is hard to determine. The average height of vertical scratching poles provided by study participants was between 2 and 3 feet tall, which falls short of the height and sturdiness that many cats prefer – there’s a reason they love sofas – they’re tall and sturdy, and usually in a good spot for the territorial marking that scratching behavior in part represents. Although 22.1% of people who tried to encourage their cat to use the designated item gave their cats treats for scratching, only one person reported using clicker training to do so.

Action shot of my cat using her Ultimate Scratching Post.

There was almost no relationship between human behavior and cat scratching behavior, but there could be too much variability in human behavior to see an effect; for example, did everyone in the study who “taught their cat how to use the designated scratching item” do so in exactly the same way? I’m guessing not.

So what can we conclude from this study? Many cats scratch chairs and carpet; but almost as many cats (79% of those who had a provided scratch post or pad) were ALSO using their designated scratching posts or pads. Most cats in the study were only provided with one designated scratching option, so one may not be enough. My own personal and professional experience: give your cat multiple scratching options that they like, in different areas of your house, and they will rarely if ever touch your furniture. Offer choices and you’ll learn their scratching preferences in no time…and save your couch from being shredded too.

Reference: Moesta, A., Keys, D., & Crowell-Davis, S. (2017). Survey of cat owners on features and preventative measures of feline scratching of inappropriate objects: a pilot study. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 1098612X17733185.