Monthly Archives: February 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference:

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