Author Archives: Mikel Delgado

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.

For many cat owners, there’s nothing more stressful than getting their cat to the vet. And it’s not necessarily the vet visit the pet parent minds so much as getting their cat into the cat carrier. In one study, the stress of getting cats to the veterinarian was cited as a reason many people don’t EVEN BOTHER taking their cat to the doctor for a regular checkup.

Perhaps this is where your cats like to hang out when it's time to go to the vet? Photo via Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/jon_a_ross/3215684326

Make one move toward the closet, or the garage door, perhaps you’re already sweating bullets…your cat picks up on the signs…and then before you know it, they have tucked themselves deeply underneath your bed, just out of reach. If you’re lucky, perhaps you can grab and pull out your cat without being bitten or scratched; some of you might even resort to scaring your cat out from under the bed with a broom or vacuum (I wish I was kidding, but all the above happen all too frequently). You might even have to just cancel that vet appointment at the last minute…

How did we get here? Why are so many people resorting to such heavy-handed, fear-inducing, traumatic methods to put a cat in a box (I thought cats loved boxes?). Methods that no doubt will make the whole process even harder next time around?

The first challenge is the pervasive disbelief that we can train cats at all, much less train them to willingly go into a cat carrier. Second, is getting information on training techniques to cat owners so they can know where to start!

A new study tested the effects of a carrier training protocol on signs of stress in cats while being transported in a car and then examined in a veterinary office. The study, Carrier training cats reduces stress on transport to a veterinary practice, conducted at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, was recently published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.

Researchers tested 22 cats. Each cat was individually taken into a new room and given 5 minutes to adjust. Next the carrier was placed on the floor and the cat was given 3 minutes to enter voluntarily, at which point they were placed in the carrier. All cats were given treats during the 10-minute car ride across campus to the veterinary exam. The cats were kept in a waiting room for 5 minutes, then brought into a separate room for an exam. Cats were given 3 minutes to exit the carrier on their own, at which point the carrier was dismantled and the examination was conducted in the bottom half of the cat carrier.

You can get your cat cozy in their carrier!

The cats were split into 2 groups, with half of the cats receiving “carrier training” which consisted of 7 steps. To summarize the steps:

  1. Presenting the cat with just the bottom half of the carrier, and giving the cats treats when they approach or get in the carrier; luring them closer to carrier with treats if they wouldn’t approach on their own
  2. Repeating step one with the top and door added, with the door open, rewarding any approach or entering, as well as any calm behavior in the carrier
  3. Moving and closing the door while the cat is inside, tossing treats into the carrier through the front door
  4. Picking up the carrier for short periods at first, gradually increasing the time the carrier is lifted with the cat secured inside, rewarding the cat for calm behavior
  5. Carrying the cat to the car, offering tuna while in the carrier in the car
  6. Turning on the engine, offering tuna
  7. Short car rides, gradually increasing the time in the car (up to 3 minutes), paired with food, petting and verbal praise

Each cat was given a total of 28 training sessions over the course of 6 weeks. Three of 11 cats made completed all seven stages, with six cats getting to stage 7 and two cats to stage 6.  The control group of cats did not receive any type of training before the second veterinary exam, which was the next part of the study.

The researchers measured stress using the “Cat Stress Score,” a commonly used measure of feline behaviors and postures that suggest whether a cat is relaxed, tense or fearful. A camera was placed in the cat carrier to observe the cats’ behaviors during the car ride, and temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate were measured during the vet exam. It was also noted whether cats entered their carriers willingly, whether they left the carrier by themselves during the exam, and whether they showed fearful or aggressive behaviors during the veterinary exam.

Photo by David Martyn Hunt via Creative Commons license at https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidchief/5912515514

Results showed that all cats had a lowered stress score during the car ride to the second veterinary exam; but cats in the training group experienced a much larger reduction in stress scores. Cats in the training group were more likely to show behaviors such as kneading or rubbing against the carrier. Cats with carrier training were able to be examined more quickly, although they were not more likely to leave the carrier on their own.

Not all behaviors were affected by the training; for example, there were no differences between groups on any of the physiological measures of stress (respiratory rate, heart rate, temperature). There were also no differences between the two groups in stress scores during the time in the waiting room or during the exam. It should also be noted that even though the cats were randomized into either a training or control group, 7 out of 11 of the cats in the training group went into the carrier on their own right from the get-go, whereas only 4 of the cats in the control group did, suggested that there may have been some personality differences or different experiences or associations with carriers between the two groups. Finally, because the study used laboratory cats, we don’t yet know how precisely this would apply to cats in homes…is someone getting on that study???

But, THIS study does provide evidence for the power of positive training! With just a few weeks of short training sessions, cats showed less stress during a car ride in a carrier and were easier to examine by a veterinarian. Those sound like two major improvements for cats to me! If you need more advice on how to train YOUR cat to love their carrier, here are a few resources I like:

Reference: Pratsch, L., Mohr, N., Palme, R., Rost, J., Troxler, J., & Arhant, C. (2018). Carrier training cats reduces stress on transport to a veterinary practice. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

This blog post is part of the 2018 #Train4Rewards Blog Party. See what the fun is all about by clicking on the image below!

 

 

Stress has been related to health problems in cats. Photo by Greg Westfield via a creative commons license. https://www.flickr.com/photos/imagesbywestfall/3547931238

I think most of us are aware that chronic stress can take its toll on our health; it can reduce our immune responding, and lead to long-term inflammatory responses, and can even increase our susceptibility to cancer. Recognizing this link, humans make efforts to decrease stress, via meditation or relaxation techniques, exercise, therapy, meds, and by directly addressing the source of the stress, when possible.

But our cats don’t always have the choice to manage the stressors in their environment, and stress reduction techniques (such as exercise) may depend on what their humans provide for them. Being dependent on humans also means that cats are dependent on their owners recognizing that they are stressed in the first place!

Unfortunately, stress can manifest in health issues in cats too. One of the most common health issues associated with stress in cats is feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC). In this case, a cat has clinical lower urinary tract signs (LUTS) such as straining to urinate, urinating outside the litter box, or blood in the urine but diagnostics cannot determine a specific cause for the signs (the term idiopathic means disease or condition of unknown cause).

A cat who presents with LUTS is likely experiencing some form of stress. But how do we know what the stressors might be? A recent study, “Epidemiological study of feline idiopathic cystitis in Seoul, South Korea,” sought to determine what factors were related to a higher risk of FIC in cats who live in South Korea. The researchers interviewed owners of 58 cats who had been diagnosed with FIC, as well as 281 owners of control cats who had never had symptoms of FIC. The questions were focused on the cat’s living environment, behavior, and diet as well as questions about the litter box set up.

Based on the records of over 4000 cats in one practice, almost 3% of cats presented with LUTS and more than half of those cats were diagnosed with FIC, suggesting an overall prevalence of FIC of 1.77%. The researchers used statistical analyses to look for relationship between certain aspects of the cats’ environments and behavior and the likelihood of being diagnosed with FIC. This basically involves comparing the number of FIC cats who lived in an environment with a particular feature (such as other cats or outdoor access) compared with control cats.

Cats with a vantage point may be less susceptible to FIC.
Photo by Kaitlynlombardo34 via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Simba_Laying_in_a_Cat_Tree.jpg

The results suggested five key factors that were related to FIC: being male, having a litter box with non-clumping litter, living with other cats, living in an apartment (versus a house), and not having an elevated vantage point for use (such as a cat condo or vertical space). So, for example, although there were equal numbers of male and female cats in the control group, males made up almost 76% of the FIC cats. This means that male cats were 2.34 times as likely to be diagnosed with FIC compared to female cats. The effect was strongest in cats who did not have a vantage point in the home, who were 4.64 times as likely to have FIC compared to cats with a vantage point.

Some other things seemed to contribute to FIC, although the relationship wasn’t as strong, such as shared food bowls, whether cats had access to a hiding space, and being middle aged. These are risk factors that merit more careful consideration in future studies.

Things that did not appear to be related to the likelihood of a diagnosis of FIC in this study included the style of the litter box (covered or uncovered), the number of people in the home, and having access to the outdoors.

We would be naïve to think that stress only impacts the urinary system in cats. It’s likely related to several other disease processes, and studies like the current one help us paint a picture of what causes stress in cats overall, even though it can’t necessarily tell us what will stress out YOUR cat. That’s up for you to do your best to understand and prevent, based on what you know about your cat and by providing him or her with things that make the environment safer, more engaging, and by giving your cat a sense of control via choices (in other words, an abundance of desirable resources!).

Living with other cats or not having a vantage point is not a guarantee that a cat will develop FIC, they are just risk factors. It’s possible that there are interaction effects, where cats who live with other cats are just fine if they have a vantage point, or the risks of being male increase if you also use a non-clumping litter. Plenty of cats may cope just fine with living in an apartment, but knowing these risks, we should do what we can to reduce their effects. By providing your cat with a vantage point, and adequate resources, it is possible we can remedy situations that might lead to stress in the first place – and with the added benefit of possibly reducing the risks of disease.

Reference

Kim, Y., Kim, H., Pfeiffer, D., & Brodbelt, D. (2017). Epidemiological study of feline idiopathic cystitis in Seoul, South Korea. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 1098612X17734067.

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