Author Archives: Mikel Delgado

A new study explores whether and how mom cats might recognize their offspring.

You’ve probably seen dozens of “mom cat foster” stories on the internet – where mom cats are given a baby animal (sometimes of another species) to care for.  It’s not uncommon for rescue groups, upon receipt of an orphaned kitten, just latch them on to a cat who is already nursing a littler. Much like Paul McCartney, these mom cats often just say “Let ‘em in.”

Cat nurses a puppy

Cat nurses a baby squirrel

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Cat nurses a baby skunk:

A cat nurses ducklings?????

From an evolutionary perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for animals to invest time and energy care for unrelated young – it could increase risk of predation when moms have to spend more time searching for food for that new mouth to feed. It could even mean less success for an animal’s own babies. Adoption (and its dangers) sometimes unintentionally happens in nature – most commonly via what is called “brood parasitism” where a bird lays an egg in another bird’s nest.  In the case of the Cuckoo, they lay eggs in Reed Warblers’ nests, and once they hatch, the young cuckoos wiggle around so much that they push their adoptive mom’s eggs out of the nest.

So why would cats be so willing to take on extra, unrelated babies? A new study looked at whether mom cats were discriminating in their care of kittens, depending on if they were her own or from another litter (referred to as “aliens”). The recent publication, “Can but don’t: olfactory discrimination between own and alien offspring in the domestic cat,” published in the journal Animal Cognition, also looked at whether or not mom cats could tell the difference between her own and alien offspring by just using their sense of smell.

Photo from Animal Cognition/ Bánszegi, Jacinto, Urrutia, Szenczi, & Hudson

In Experiment 1, twelve recent mothers were presented with an array of kittens in little dishes (to prevent them from rolling around). The kittens were <7 days old. Two of the kittens were the mother’s offspring, and two were alien. The experimenters recorded how long it took for the mom to investigate each kitten, and if she retrieved them and carried them back to the nest. Moms showed no differences in behavior toward their own and alien kittens, aside from spending more time sniffing alien kittens. Seven of the mom cats retrieved all 4 kittens, two brought back two kittens (one of their own and one alien kitten in both cases) and the other three mom cats did not return any kittens to her nest.

So now we have a new question – did moms bring back alien kittens because they could not discriminate between which kittens were theirs and which were alien, or did they just not care?

Photo from Animal Cognition/ Bánszegi, Jacinto, Urrutia, Szenczi, & Hudson

To test this, Experiment 2 involved presenting the mom cat with a kitten wrapped in a small towel, with only the anogenital region (hereafter referred to as “kitten booty”) available for sniffing. The mom was presented with three of her own kitten’s booties, then the booty of an alien kitten. Sniffing time was noted for each presentation. Mom cats habituated to the smell of their own kittens, sniffing each booty a decreasing amount of time. But the presentation of the alien kitten booty led to a significant increase in sniffing time, suggesting that the mom cat could detect that something was different about this fourth booty.

To be sure that this discrimination wasn’t due to some other factors, such as visual recognition of the kitten booty or the possibility that the kittens were emitting ultrasonic vocalizations, a third experiment was conducted where the moms were presented with four Q-tips instead of four booties.

Photo from Animal Cognition/ Bánszegi, Jacinto, Urrutia, Szenczi, & Hudson

The first three Q-tips had each been rubbed on three of the mom’s own kittens, and the fourth Q-tip was rubbed on an alien kitten. The swabs were rubbed all over the kitten, including their faces, stomach, and anogenital region. Shortly afterward, the Q-tips were presented to the mom cat in a similar manner as the booties had been. Again, the mom showed habituation to the smell of her own babies, and spent more time sniffing the alien kitten Q-tip.

Combined, these studies demonstrate that mom cats can distinguish differences between kittens who are their biological offspring, and kittens who aren’t. Moms seem less discriminating when it comes to rescuing kittens who are separated from their nest. So why would that be?

Although I really enjoyed this paper, the one thing that bothered me was the continual reference to cats as “solitary.” A more modern understand of cat sociality clearly demonstrates that group living, and matrilineal societies are not unusual in environments where resources are adequate.

Cat colonies tend to be matrilineal. Photo by Linda Tanner via Creative Commons License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/goingslo/6130901498

 

In these cases, if mom cats are highly likely to be near closely related female cats, then the costs of co-mothering (from an evolutionary/fitness perspective, where the goal is to ensure your genes are passed on) are small. In fact, if this behavior is reciprocal, then your own offspring would have a greater chance of surviving if another mom cat (probably one of your relatives) was willing to care for YOUR kittens.

Moms have litters that on average have 3-5 kittens. But they can have eight (or apparently, sometimes even more) nipples. Although each nursing baby would come with additional nutritional costs for mom, she can accommodate more kittens than she usually gives birth to.

Thus, it should not be surprising that mom cats would be willing to nurse other animals - they have nipples to spare, and under many conditions, even if they did pick up some nearby kittens, there would be a good chance that those kittens would be related, thus taking care of those kittens may not present a lot of costs for your average mom cat.

 

If there’s a veterinary “procedure” that tends to gets people all wiggly, it might be the declawing of domestic cats. Declawing is the amputation of a cat’s toes (with scalpel, laser, or even with claw clippers), usually performed to prevent furniture scratching.

“It saves lives,” “it keeps cats out of shelters,” “banning medical procedures is a slippery slope…” we’ve heard it all. Those of us who work professionally with cats have also seen repercussions – the declawed cats surrendered to shelters with behavior issues, the cats who have been hobbled with arthritis from years of walking unnaturally, cats who can no longer engage in natural behaviors like scratching and stretching.

People get up in arms easily over tail and ear docking of dogs, but it feels like declawing is still treated like a fringe issue. I’ll be upfront with you. I don’t think declawing is necessary EVER, I don’t think it’s a humane choice, and honestly, I feel like if you can’t live with a cat with their claws, you shouldn’t have a cat as a companion animal. So now that I’ve gotten that out of the way – let’s talk about some new research that provides strong evidence for the negative effects of declawing.

In a study just released in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, “Pain and adverse behavior in declawed cats,” researchers studied 137 declawed cats, with a control group of 137 paw-intact cats matched for age. Each cat was given a physical exam, including a common test for back pain, by palpating areas of the spine and noting reactions. As cats are digitigrade, or walk on their toes, removing their toes changes their posture, which is hypothesized to cause long-term physical effects, including the risk of arthritis.

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I was recently interviewed by Ingrid King for the Conscious Cat website! I shared how I became a cat behavior specialist, and discussed my approach to helping folks, as well as sharing the gory details about some of my favorite and most challenging cat behavior cases!

I was lucky to meet Ingrid at AAFP in DC last year and we also hung out recently in NYC at Cat Camp, and I thought her website would be a great opportunity to help folks better understand their cats!

Sooooo, following in my friend Kris Chandroo's footsteps (he's doing an "Ask the Vet" column at Conscious Cat -- hey, it's a small cat world, turns out we all know each other), I will be answering reader questions over at consciouscat.net. I hope to get the kitty-knowledge to the people once a month or so! Check out my first batch of answers here.

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The placebo effect is the phenomenon of reported or observed medical improvement in the absence of an active treatment. The placebo effect in humans has been found in several studies of pain and depression, and a recent study even suggested that when Parkinson’s patients thought they were receiving an expensive treatment (saline), they showed more improvement in motor function than when they received what they thought was a cheaper treatment.

Photo by srgpicker via Creative Commons License https://www.flickr.com/photos/srgblog/6653228113

Now it might make sense that humans would be influenced by thinking they are receiving a treatment. If you’ve felt better in the past after taking a medication, perhaps you were then conditioned to equate a pill with feeling better. In the future, even a pill that has no active ingredient could help you feel better. This type of effect was seen in dogs who learned that being put into a chamber was followed by a morphine injection (these happened to be Pavlov’s dogs). Soon, just being placed in the chamber led to a similar physiological response before they even received the injection.

Can animals experience a placebo effect without any previous conditioning? That is a little harder to know without objective measures, because animals can’t report to us directly about how they are feeling. However, perhaps an animal’s human caregiver has something to say about how their pet feels?

There is a variation on the placebo effect known as the caregiver placebo effect, where family members or clinicians rate that someone receiving a placebo has improved; interestingly, often the family member or doctor rates the amount of improvement as higher than the patient themselves does. In some cases, the ratings of improvement by the caretaker also influence the self-report of the patient – somehow the behavior of others, who believe you are receiving treatment (and therefore perhaps are less anxious), makes you feel better too! This is called placebo-by-proxy. This effect has been studied in humans, but could it happen in our pets too?

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I'm looking forward to this weekend's IAABC conference, featuring presentations on cat, dog, horse and parrot behavior from Susan Friedman, Christopher Pachel, Lore Haug, Kristyn Shreve, Trish McMillan Loehr, Michael Shikashio, and more. Oh, and ME!

I'll be presenting some of my favorite cat behavior case studies, looking at how different factors influenced recommendations and behavioral outcomes for cats and their families! It's not too late to register!!!

If you are in Los Angeles, I hope to see you there 🙂

If you can't be there, don't feel left out, I hope to do a better job live-tweeting than I did at Cat Con!

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This week, Ingrid King was kind enough to interview me for her blog/website the Conscious Cat! I tell all about my personal path to a career in cat behavior consulting and the rewards and challenges it brings!!

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I also helped out my friend Kris Chandroo (who I featured on my blog last year) by answering some behavior questions for his "Ask the Vet" column at the Conscious Cat earlier this week. Look for MORE answers from me to MORE behavior questions at Ingrid's site in the near future!!

 

Too smart to quit

A biology professor in Canada tells it like it is. Squirrels are just too smart for us to keep out of bird feeders. Although he tries.

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Speaking of birdfeeders, you say potato, I say...

Can you prove a bird feeder isn't a squirrel feeder? A woman in Canada was cited for "providing sustenance for squirrels." Since neither squirrel nor bird feeding is illegal where she lives, the question is whether she is attracting vermin through her "bird feeding" habits.

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Catnip: almost everyone knows about this magical mint-relative that has a powerful effect on approximately 60% of cats. Rolling, rubbing, drooling, and chewing are just a few of the responses your cat might have to catnip. But most folks, including veterinary professionals, aren’t aware that there are other plants that have a similar, usually positive, effect on our kitties.

A new study with a long title, Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria), took an in-depth look at how these catnip alternatives, such as silver vine or Tatarian honeysuckle rank next to been-there, done-that catnip. IT'S OPEN ACCESS!!!!

Lead author Sebastiaan Bol was kind enough to answer some of my questions about their work.

The investigators tested the effects of catnip and the three alternative substances on cats in a sanctuary, a shelter, and a veterinary office. Not wanting other felines to feel left out, they also looked at whether tigers and bobcats would indulge.

Olfactory enrichments were presented to cats in a clean sock. To be certain that cats don’t just love socks, a control sock with no plant product was also given to the cats. Responses such as sniffing, licking, head shaking, rubbing, and rolling were noted, and cats’ responses were classified as either “mild/partial,” or “characteristic/intense.” Dr. Bol told me more about what these responses looked like:

“Cats showing the characteristic catnip response almost always first sniff and lick, then give the sock chin or cheek rubs and start rolling. A positive response needed to last at least several seconds before it would be considered an intense response. We observed that not all domestic cats responded to the plants the same way; some would only sniff and lick. These cats really seemed to enjoy the plant material though and it was a response we did not see when they were offered the negative, empty control sock.”

 

Photo by "T"eresa via Creative Commons License https://www.flickr.com/photos/teresa-stanton/

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This weekend I'm off to NYC, attending Cat Camp! Why didn't they have this kind of camp when I was a kid?!?!

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Joking aside, I'm looking forward to the opportunity to schmooze with fellow cat-lovers, and attend this unique event dedicated to all things cat. Christina Ha of the Meow Parlour cafe in NYC organized Cat Camp, with cat cafes, community cats, special needs cats, the fight against declawing, behavior, and kitten rescue all on the agenda! There is a wonderful line-up of speakers including Jackson Galaxy, Hannah Shaw,  Kate Benjamin, Jennifer Conrad, Beth Adelman, and Ingrid King. I will be live-tweeting the event if I'm not too busy cuddling kittens!