I answer behavior questions from readers every month or so at the Conscious Cat!
This month I address redirected aggression, rough play between cats, clicker training cats in shelters, and much more! Check it out here.
Going to the bathroom, it seems so simple – everybody does it! But when it comes to cats, things can get complicated. When we provide what they prefer in a litterbox, it’s like magic – you build it (the litterbox), they will come. Thanks to cats’ natural proclivities for eliminating in a loose substrate, we don’t even have to “train” cats to use the litterbox.
But when things go wrong, and by that, I mean pee on your bed or poop on the floor, they go horribly wrong. Nothing sends guardians into despair, and cats into homelessness quicker than a litterbox avoidance issue. Any research that can help us understand the intricacies of feline elimination behavior is a good thing in my book.
Recently the folks at Purina published a study in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science called, “The ins and outs of the litter box: A detailed ethogram of cat elimination behavior in two contrasting environments.” This study was all about observation, no judgment, with a goal of providing a detailed ethogram of the behaviors that cats exhibit during elimination.
Twelve cats (six female, six male) who live in an enriched environment at the Purina cattery participated in the study. First the cats were allowed to acclimate to the testing room for 4 days. The testing room was 12 x 13’, with elevated resting areas, toys, and a large litterbox (approximately 3’x3’ square, and six inches high) with sandy clay clumping litter. On the 5th day, filming of the cats began, focusing on pre-, during, and post-elimination behaviors. On days 9 to 13, the cats were moved to a small enclosure (2 x 2.3 x 2.7’) within the room, to mimic the “clinical” environment a cat might be housed in while in a veterinary hospital or boarding facility. Cats were also given a smaller litterbox (16” x 12” x 4” high) and the litter was switched to polypropylene beads, similar to pellet litters that are sometimes used instead of the softer litters.
Ninety-one elimination events were recorded during the study, 58 urinations, 24 defecations, and nine 2-for-1s (or a number two with a number one!). From this, the researchers were able to come up with a detailed list of observations and differences between the two conditions (original vs clinical environment). Let’s take a closer look at some of the interesting findings!
First of all, 7 to 8 AM was the most popular time to pee and poop. In case you were wondering (of course, this might be related to what time the cats are fed, which was not noted in the manuscript).
From this study, 38 elimination behaviors were observed and included in an ethogram, which covers everything from tail positions to paw motions and body postures. From the observed behaviors, and what we know from studies previously published by Wailani Sung & Sharon Crowell-Davis, and by Nicole Cottam & Nicholas Dodman, we can assume that there were some things about the clinical setting that the cats didn’t like.
During urination, cats did more pawing at the litter when eliminating in the beads; they also did more “paw shifting” and kept fewer paws in the box with the beads. They also urinated less frequently and for longer periods in the clinical setting. When defecating, the cats were more likely to balance their paws on the side of the box, and were more hesitant to enter the box in the clinical setting with the bead litter.
For both urination and defecation, the cats spent more time sniffing their eliminations, and scratching at the walls or sides of the box in the clinical setting; there were no differences in time spent digging in the different litter substrates. The only times that the cats eliminated outside the box was in the clinical setting, with four urination and five defecation events occurring elsewhere.
Unfortunately, one issue with the current study is that in the “clinical” environment, the experimenters changed three things at once: the size of the enclosure, the size of the litterbox, AND the type of the litter. It’s hard to say for certain that the behavioral changes observed during the switch from enriched to clinical setting were due to one of those things, or perhaps because of an additive or interaction effect between more than one change. To tease factors like these apart, it’s really best to only change one thing at a time.
The authors suggest that a quick elimination experience may actually be a good thing; the extended time cats spent pawing at the areas around the box may have been because they kept smelling their waste in the box (also supported by more sniffing post-elimination in the clinical setting) – suggesting that the beads may not have provided enough odor control for the participating cats.
Another observation of concern was that the cats urinated less frequently and for longer periods in the clinical setting. This may be due to urine retention – in other words, that the cats were holding their urine for some reason (possibly because something about the litterbox experience was unpleasant). Urine retention can be a risk factor for urinary tract disease, which is another reason for us to better understand what helps cats love their litterboxes!
Perhaps most importantly, if we can assume that something about the clinical setting was distasteful to the cats, either the litter substrate, the size of the box, or both – this assumption further underscores the importance of understanding that USE does not equal preference. I’ve blogged about this before. Basically, just because your cat uses it, we should not assume they like it!
Because the cats showed some “frustration behaviors” in the clinical setting even when still using the box, including not putting all paws in the box and spending more time scratching at other areas besides the litter, the authors of the current study state, “out-of-box elimination alone may not provide a sufficient indicator of whether the cat finds the litter box experience acceptable.” Nuff said.
Like me, squirrels seem to enjoy baseball. A squirrel named Crumbs likes to cheer on Maryland’s minor league team. An outfielder noted: “Every time we have seen him during games … something good has happened. He knows we got the W.”
Another squirrel in Cleveland ran onto the field during a game, and disappeared into the stands when stadium staff tried to chase him. The same squirrel received cheers from the crowd a few weeks later when he made an encore appearance.
And this squirrel couldn’t wait for the All Star Game to be over, running onto the field of the Detroit Tigers’ stadium at the first opportunity.
But squirrels aren’t exclusive to baseball. This squirrel got involved during the PGA golf tournament in Texas, barely missing being blasted by a drive.
A man in Tunbridge Wells in the UK is dragging a dead squirrel door to door, offering to inspect people’s rooftops and then telling them they need to give him money to fix the (non-existent) squirrel related damage. Police recommend calling them if you are offered such services by a unsolicited man carrying a dead squirrel.
In Wisconsin, folks at a rummage sale called the police to complain that baby squirrels were “harassing them,” and police were also called to escort a “large squirrel” from someone’s bedroom in Salem, Massachussetts. That wasn’t the only squirrel break-in: a woman was terrified by a squirrel who broke into her home in Pennsylvania, and screamed really loudly. The family managed to get the squirrel out of the home without having to call the police.
In Spokane, residents are concerned after a mutilated squirrel was found hanging from a tree. There were no witnesses to the event. Across the pond, folks were horrified when a man ordered his dog to kill a squirrel in front of children.
Is it a crime if it’s an act of patriotism?
Squirrels in Texas stole several small American flags from a veteran’s yard. Turns out the flags make handy squirrel nest material!
Squirrel steals eggs from (Easter) bunny
After thirty years of successful Easter Egg hunts, a Missouri park experienced plastic egg theft at the paws of a sneaky squirrel, who grabbed a purple plastic egg, carried it up a tree, and chewed large holes into it.
Trial opens and closes in attempted murder case over squirrel feeding
A Colorado man, Jon Barbour, shot his neighbor in the buttocks after a dispute over his squirrel-feeding habits, which the neighbor did not appreciate. Barbour claimed that feeding squirrels helped him commune with his dead parents. He was charged with attempted second-degree murder. Just five days later, he was found guilty. Sentencing will happen on August 4.
When squirrels attack
Several children in Jacksonville, FL were trying to enjoy a stroll in a local park when one was scratched up by a squirrel. Officials felt certain the squirrel was not rabid, just hungry. In Moscow, ID, a woman reported to police that a one-eyed rabid squirrel attacked her and her child. The squirrel could not be located, and neither the woman nor her child were injured.
How often do squirrels attack? Turns out we don’t really know. Since squirrels don’t tend to carry serious diseases, such as rabies, the CDC does not track squirrel bites (and most squirrel bites are probably not reported). The Atlantic recently delved into this topic!
Crime fighting squirrel
Sometimes squirrels need a little help from humans. I’m not so sure this Boston squirrel was ashamed, but he was definitely buttery by the time rescuers were able to free him from a dumpster he was stuck in.
A baby squirrel was rescued from a busy NY roadway, by a police officer who kept him safe overnight. He was transferred to wildlife rescue the next day.
A man in Virginia trapped a squirrel and cut off a large ring that was stuck around her neck. The squirrel was freed and completely recovered.
She could use an orthodontist
Concerned citizens in Miami are trying to save a squirrel with a maloccluded tooth – that means her tooth is not growing properly. Squirrels with such dental problems often die because they cannot eat or because the tooth grows into their skull. I couldn’t find an update on Sabrina the snaggle-toothed squirrel.
A squirrel king
It’s not as regal as it sounds; a squirrel king is when a bunch of squirrels get tied together by their tails. Yes, this really happens! Recently, four baby squirrels in Maine ended up tangled together, and a nearby cat was thinking they would make a tasty meal. A man was able to catch the squirrels and allowed them to calm down in a box. “It was a like a dreadlock” – but after working at the tails for an hour and a half, the babies were set free at their nest tree, and returned to mom.
Longview, WA is known for its yearly Squirrel Fest, and its many squirrel bridges that allow squirrels to cross roads without running into traffic. This year Longview added a fifth bridge to the mix. But do the squirrels even care? A town in Holland spent over 12000 euros on squirrel bridges, and a year later, they believe that ZERO squirrels have used it.
Atlas Obscura published this fascinating piece on the history of keeping squirrels as pets! There was a time where you could purchase a squirrel in a pet store; I think as cute as squirrels are, we are much better appreciating them out of doors!
A new publication out of Exeter, by my friend Pizza Chow, looked at whether squirrels could remember a problem they had solved almost two years earlier, and whether they could apply these skills to a new, similar problem. The answers are YES and YES!
What helps baby red squirrels survive? Being born before the other squirrels in the neighborhood. “First out of the nest is best” – those squirrels have a better chance at establishing their own territory before competition sets it. It sounds like trying to find housing in the Bay Area.
Researchers in North Carolina recently discovered that North America is home to THREE, not two, species of flying squirrel. The Humboldt’s flying squirrel is currently the nation’s newest mammal discovery!
I’ll tell you, co-authoring a book, finishing your dissertation, and teaching do not leave a lot of time for blogging about squirrels. I’ve got about four months of squirrel news to catch you up on, and I hope you will not be disappointed.
A squirrel shut down the grid by chewing wires and starting fires in Luverne, MN. Hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of people in Fargo ND, Omaha NE, Ashland OR, Blacklick, OH, Staten Island, Bangor ME, Nashville TN, Hamilton MN, Ripon, CA, Muskegon, MI, and Cedar Springs, MI lost power thanks to squirrels. A mere 250 people in Arkansas were left without power after a squirrel caused a power outage. A college campus in Mississippi, a high school in Chico CA, and an elementary school in Bovina, MS all got excused from class after squirrels shut them down.
In Springdale, PA, a “loose wire and a dead squirrel” caused lights to flicker on and off. Eugene OR suffered an outage when a squirrel’s tail “touched a second phase power line.” Translation: the squirrel was electrocuted and died.
A squirrel chewed on electrical wires in a home in Dekalb, GA, almost burning it down. Luckily the home owner was around when the sparks flew and no one was injured.
But people aren’t just sitting back and letting squirrels shut down their power. After a squirrel caused a 10 HOUR power outage for over 6000 households in Sunnyside, WA, shutting down churches and restaurants, officials have vowed to “explore their options” to prevent this from happening again. In Guelph, Canada, the city is replacing old equipment and adding wildlife protection covers to stop the never-ending wave of power losses.
A man in Pennsylvania lost control of his car, crashing into a parked vehicle, claiming it was all because he was trying to avoid hitting a squirrel. A woman in South Carolina flipped her vehicle when she went off the side of the road, also trying to avoid hitting a squirrel. The driver’s comment: “I don’t like squirrels anymore.”
Luckily, a driver at the German racing event Nurburgring avoided hitting a squirrel who ran across the track. He also avoided injuring himself.
Folks at a golf course in North Carolina gained some internet notoriety for feeding a squirrel an Ice cream on a daily basis. “Putter” got her own tiny squirrel-sized cone of ice cream and returned the favor by giving birth to two babies. Only time will tell if they will also expect their own treats.
A plane was delayed when a squirrel was found hanging out in the engine.
A squirrel caused some chaos when stuck on a London train;
And a man in Canada unknowingly gave a squirrel a ride in the backseat of his car.
A woman in Tennessee spent over six months in the hospital after her husband shot her instead of a squirrel. The husband mentioned that “God is good.”
A man in Staten Island was busted using a bow and arrow to hunt squirrels. He was charged with prohibited use of a weapon. Two teenagers in South Dakota face charges after discharging a weapon within city limits for firing a BB gun and killing a squirrel.
For the record, I am a vegetarian and don’t condone the eating of squirrels. But one British butcher is encouraging folks to give “squirrel on the barbie” a try.
Folks in New York are still trying to get the “Squirrel Slam” hunting contest shut down. The squirrel slam offers prizes for those who “bag” the most squirrels. Opponents have tried to shut down the slam in court multiple times, and once again, they were dissed and dismissed. Sadly, the slam continues.
Squirrels aren’t considered a particularly social species, and sometimes they have interactions with other animals…who aren’t squirrels!
Squirrel meets fish, cuteness ensues.
Well I love Ricky Gervais, and since he saved an injured squirrel, I love him even more!!
I have to admit I had no idea who Jeremy Kyle is, but I guess he’s famous in the UK. If you want to see a British celebrity impersonate a squirrel having sex, then this one is for you. Also, I'm not so sure his impersonation is very accurate.
Watch this squirrel climb up a slide, then take a ride! Some adorable rodent play in this video!
The United Kingdom is one of the few areas where both gray and red squirrels exist. As I’ve reported before, this co-existence is a threat for red squirrels, as grays both take advantage of resources that reds also rely on, and spread squirrelpox, which red squirrels (but not grays) are susceptible to. The ongoing question is how to manage this threat to the endangered red squirrel. The answer has been massive culls, which is not without controversy. The Guardian wrote an in-depth report on the “volunteer army” who are trying to eliminate grays. Worth a read!
Given that controversy over squirrel feeding led to an attempted murder trial in Colorado (more on that next time!), it seems ironic that a Colorado town is taking up discussion on whether it should be legal to feed squirrels. An 80 year old man, Gaylord Sigman, in Loveland was cited for feeding squirrels, which caused an uproar from animal lovers. A neighbor complained about the squirrels burying peanuts (obtained from Sigman) in his yard. Apparently, Loveland’s ordinance about not feeding wild animals does not specifically mention squirrels, which has led to some controversy. City Council is still discussing the matter.
My dear friend Julie Hecht recently posted excellent advice on how to help dogs that might get stressed out about fireworks on her excellent blog DogSpies. We sometimes forget that cats can be afraid of the 4th too! They aren't huge fans of loud noises, and the unpredictability of fireworks can make them especially hard to habituate too.
Some cats are more adept at hiding their fear, or they might spend a lot of their time hiding anyway (note: this should not be accepted as "normal cat behavior"). So how can you make sure your cats aren't terrified of the Fourth?
Safety first: Make sure they're inside! Even if your cats normally go outside, the 4th of July is not a good day for them to roam. If they get frightened, they may run and hide or even get lost. Injuries from fireworks are another reason to keep your kitty confined on this holiday.
Provide hiding spaces - make sure your cat has some cozy places to hide (not just under the bed). I prefer clamshell cat beds or pods, cardboard boxes tipped on their side, and cat carriers make excellent safe spaces if your cat has been trained that carriers = good. Some cats prefer to hide up high in a cat tree with a cubby.
Consider a "quiet room" - some cats do best if confined away from the noise and activity - especially if you are having guests over for a BBQ and there will be other chaos on top of the fireworks! Frequently opened doors are a good opportunity for a panicked cat to run outside, so sometimes it is safest to set up a bedroom or office as a safe room with everything the cat needs inside (food, water, litter box, cozy thing)...and the door closed.
Buffer sounds - fans, white noise machines, classical music, and talk radio can all help buffer the loud, unpredictable boom of fireworks.
Play therapy! Don't forget that play is a great way to help your cat be more calm and confident. Try a nice lengthy play session for your cat with an interactive toy earlier in the day. Give your cat a snack afterward and they might just nap through some of those fireworks.
It's okay to comfort, but...do not pull your cat out of their safe spot or physically interact with them if they are giving clear signs they do not want to be handled (stiff body, shaking, hissing, hiding their face). Although we like to be comforted when we are scared, some cats prefer to be left alone. Try talking to your cat in a quiet voice and see if that helps first.
Just like with dogs, don't worry about rewarding or reinforcing fear - for the most part, animal behaviorists have tossed this antiquated notion out the window. Fear is an emotional state that provides information about the environment. We want to help our companion animals learn that the scary stimulus is in fact, not something to be terrified of. If we are calm and good things are happening for your cat, and you are calm and relaxed too, they might be less afraid next time.
If your cat is very stressed out, talk to your vet. No cat needs to suffer. If your companion animal shows severe stress in response to fireworks, it's worth talking to your vet about what options you might have for medication or neutraceuticals that could help! Please note that just like acepromazine is no longer considered appropriate for thunder-phobia and fear of fireworks in dogs, the same is likely true for cats. But there are other safe options out there to explore with your veterinarian!
I hope you and your cats have a safe and happy holiday!!
This year I was ecstatic that the ISAZ (International Society for Anthrozoology) conference was going to be so close to home and in one of my favorite places - Davis, CA! This conference focuses on human-animal interactions of just about every type you can imagine - from our relationship with pets, animal assisted therapy, education, training, wildlife conservation, and SO MUCH MORE! This was my third time attending, and I got to present some of my research on people's personality traits and their relationship with pets.
This conference is also a great opportunity to connect with amazing folks, talk about research ideas, sow seeds for collaboration, and do a lot of socializing over drinks and food! Plenty of social media representation at the conference - folks like John Bradshaw, Hal Herzog, Carri Westgarth, Molly Crossman - who you should be following on Twitter if you love learning about our relationship with other animals!
If you couldn't be there, no worries, I've put together a Storify of all the tweets I could find relevant to the conference presentations and events! If you'd like to check it out...click here!
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
It's back! I'll be answering behavior questions monthly or so on the Conscious Cat website.
Today I answer questions about nocturnally annoying cats, how to play with senior cats, and why cats might like to roll in their litter boxes.
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.
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.