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.
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.
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?
Ninety-six cats participated in the five studies of joint pain. The treatments in the different studies were: a specialized diet, a nutraceutical, two studies of a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory, and an anti-nerve growth factor antibody. Now would be a good time to note that the actual treatment in each study is of little importance because all of the data reported in the review is from placebo groups only! None of the data is from cats who were receiving an active treatment.
Cats were determined as having painful joint disease via orthopedic exams and x-rays. Each cat was then given a pain score. The objective outcome measure was the cat’s activity level as measured by an accelerometer. Each study also included a survey of the caregiver on the cat’s ease of doing different activities, such as walking, moving after resting, jumping, and finding a comfortable position.
The results compared owner report (O) of improvement in the survey against the objective measure of improvement (activity - A), meaning four possible combinations of outcomes: owner reports improvement (O+) and activity increases (A+); owner reports improvement, no activity increase (O+/A-); owner reports no improvement but activity increases (O-/A+); and owner reports no improvement and activity does not increase (O-/A-).
Let’s look at how results broke down and what they mean.
In 26% of all cases, neither the owner nor activity levels showed improvement (O-/A-). This would be considered a treatment failure. Only 6% of cats showed improvement independent of owner reports of improvement (O-/A+) – meaning that the cats increased their activity level but owner did not report improvement. Here is our objective measure of a true “treatment” effect, or the cats who may have improved anyway – so since there was no treatment, this suggests some waxing and waning of the disease, or cats who would have improved anyway.
Where things get interesting is when the humans reported improvement in their cats. Forty-three percent (!) of cats were subject to a caregiver placebo effect – where their human reported improvement but there was no increase in activity (O+/A-). These humans believed their cats were jumping and moving around with more ease. Their beliefs were not backed by the accelerometer data.
Finally, 24% of cats showed the placebo-by-proxy – where somehow the cats improved on objective measures apparently because the human thinks they are getting better! Perhaps these humans attended to their cats more, played with them more because they thought they might feel better, or just “wanted to believe.” Some of these cats may also be in the category of “regression to the mean” or extreme measures that would have gone back to normal levels – including cats who may have been at extremes of inactivity at the time the original activity measurement was taken.
There are several interesting things we must consider from this study. One is that perhaps the beliefs of the owner could have a positive effect on some cats. However, a large group of cats in this study experienced no objective improvement even though the owners felt they were better. This points out the importance of developing objective measures for outcomes for companion animals, because human beliefs may be to an extent, misreporting improvement. Those cats whose humans reported they improved, may have been suffering.
I’ve always found the placebo effect fascinating – the power of our beliefs to change our physiological systems demonstrates both the importance of our thoughts and the continuity rather than separation between brain and body – we must remember that the mind, the brain, and the body are all connected! However, when it comes to our animal companions, we have to make sure our judgments about their well-being aren’t clouded by our beliefs, so it appears that a future challenge will be making sure we have the tools we need to prevent that from happening.
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!
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.
The war on squirrels
Slate recently covered the 1918 "war on squirrels" where California children were enlisted to kill ground squirrels who were responsible for the destruction of millions of dollars worth of food crops. Children enthusiastically came forth with over 100,000 squirrel tails that were captured in a week, and crops made a brief recovery.
And in North Carolina, people are going nuts for squirrels, but not in a good way: more people than ever are seeking "pest control" services for squirrels.
But squirrels fight back
Not to be deterred by these attempts at eradication, squirrels recently attacked children in a British park, where "In one instance a child was feeding a squirrel when six others ran out from a bush and bit his hand." Six squirrels at once??? Apparently medics had to spend three hours treating the wounds.
The Chicago alderman who suffered an injury after a squirrel jumped into his bicycle spokes is back on duty. The accident happened shortly after he implored the city council to fight the Chicogo squirrel problem. Upon his return, he repeated his plea to "ban squirrels," although he claims it was in jest.
In Wisconsin, a woman reported that "while her 10-year-old son was waiting for a bus, a man in a car threw a $5 bill at him" -- and in other news, a squirrel was trapped in a home, made a mess and died.
The ongoing attempted murder trial for a man who shot his neighbor in the buttocks last May has been postponed to June. The incident began with an argument over squirrel feeding. The accused has stated that he thinks feeding squirrels is a way for him to commune with his dead parents.
A squirrel is either commuting between NY and Philly, or each town has yet ANOTHER pizza squirrel. Boston recently laid claim to its own pizza squirrel. In case you haven't guessed, squirrels enjoy pizza.
And the Holley Squirrel Slam, subject of a 2015 lawsuit that was tossed, has once again been targeted. The Fire Department of Holley, NY has been advised to seek legal council after a lawsuit was filed by a local squirrel supporter. The "Slam" offers cash and other prizes to folks who bag the most squirrels on Slam Day.
An alternative to killing: sterilization via Nutella
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.
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.”
The results of the study showed that not all plants are equal to cats. Over three-quarters of the cats responded to silver vine, 68% to catnip, 53% to honeysuckle, and 47% responded to valerian. There were no effects of sex or personality (classification as shy or outgoing) on the response. There were more mild than intense responses overall for catnip than for silver vine, especially with older cats, suggesting an effect of age on the catnip response.
The good news is that most cats will enjoy some type of olfactory enrichment. Ninety-four percent of the cats responded to at least one stimulus, and 24% responded to all four! So, if you’re not offering olfactory enrichment for your cat, don’t you think it’s time to try?
If you don’t have a local source of silver vine, Bol recommends purchasing the powdered version from Smack, a Japanese company that ships through Amazon (give it a few weeks to arrive). “If their cat doesn't respond euflorically to this, it is unlikely they will respond to silver vine wood sticks. When they do respond (to the powder), it is worth trying the sticks. Hold the wood sticks in front of your cat to make it easier for them to give it cheek rubs. When the wood lays on the floor, it is much more difficult for your cat to interact with it. In contrast to the powder, not all cats will respond positively to the wood sticks immediately.” Bol felt that their study showed less support for the use of silver vine leaves, although I have to say that my backyard feral, the Town Crier, begs to differ.
But what about the big cats in this study? Previous research has suggested tigers don’t much care for catnip. Only one of nine tigers responded mildly positively to catnip, and none responded positively to the silver vine: four were indifferent and five walked away from it.
All of the bobcats showed a characteristic response to silver vine and catnip, showing similar behaviors as those of our “tiny tigers.” I asked Sebastiaan what is up with tigers not loving the ‘nip.
“Interestingly, we still have no idea which genes are involved in the catnip response. Genetic variation within a species determines if the animal has the ability to respond to a certain active compound, but that's pretty much all we know. I believe the difference between the response of domestic cats and tigers to the plant materials can be explained by their different genetic makeup. Once we have identified the gene or genes involved in the catnip response, it would be very interesting to compare them between different species in the Felidae.” Agreed!
Having observed some cats getting riled up on catnip, I asked Dr. Bol if he observed any negative responses to the olfactory enrichments. “I don't think there is something inside the plants that causes aggression. Each cat will respond differently to the plants. Some will mellow out, others become more playful. We have seen cats that play rough when offered the plant materials. They are just terribly excited, but mean no harm.” He recommends, “When you live with multiple cats, make sure you supervise your cats the first few times you offer them these materials, so you know how it affects their behavior. Never give some to one cat, but not the other(s). If your cat becomes really excited, just don't pet them while they are enjoying the plants. There will be plenty of time to cuddle with your cat afterwards, when they are tired from playing.”
Overall, this is a lovely study that is one of the most comprehensive to date at categorizing cats’ responses to olfactory enrichment. My only critique is that this study could have been strengthened by blinding the coder to which treatment the cat was receiving. However, this research provides a compelling case for why we should offer a little “herb” to our cats. These plants may increase activity and mental stimulation, or be useful as rewards in training; or perhaps most importantly, provide cats with a welcome sense of “eufloria.”
Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria)
This weekend I'm off to NYC, attending Cat Camp! Why didn't they have this kind of camp when I was a kid?!?!
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!
Deep Look is a series that takes scientific studies and uses uber zoomed in HD footage to bring you up close! My research with squirrels was featured on Deep Look last year. So when I got a call asking to help wrangle cats, I knew it would be a blast!
Learn more about how cats use their tongues to groom, eat and drink. And, you might see me playing with some cats in there...check it out!
A recent paper by Kristen Shreve and Monique Udell reviews the importance of olfaction to cats, and how understanding this importance may help us better support feline welfare. In this interview, Shreve incorporates her recent work on training cats to suggest...perhaps a future role for cats as detection animals...search and rescue cats anyone?
Can we put the toxoplasmosis question to bed now?
I've written before about my irritation with the assumption that because cats are carriers of toxoplasmosis (a parasite linked with several health problems, including mental health issues), that living with a cat somehow means you are "crazy."
Well, a new longitudinal study followed children from birth until their teenage years and found no relationship between growing up with a cat and early signs of mental illness as a teenager. So if you have kids, or are thinking of having kids, don't let that stop you from adopting several adorable cats. You can read Karin Brulliard's WaPo report on the study here.
Could bumblebees use a soda machine? May-bee
Researchers in the UK wanted to see if bees could learn to use a "vending machine" - essentially, to learn that an item without any intrinsic rewards (such as a token) could be exchanged form something very rewarding (like nectar). To modify this task, they used a ball that could be rolled (because bees don't have pockets for coins). Bees learned the task, and learned even faster if they could watch a puppet bee perform the task first, and learned even faster than that if they could watch a real bee first. Read more here!
Dr. Karen Overall once stated quite eloquently: “Behavior kills more cats annually than does viral disease.” One of the least tolerated behavior problems in cats is when they eliminate outside the litter box, and many cats lose their homes (and lives) for an issue that I believe is often one that COULD BE fixed, if humans:
Understood what cats generally prefer about litter boxes
Maintained a suitable litter box environment for their cat(s)
Previous research has suggested cats generally prefer large boxes and clay clumping litters. It is interesting to note that when I have clients whose cats are avoiding the litter box, I often have them present their cat with a “cafeteria” of litter choices to see if their cat has a clear preference. Even when those buffets include ONLY unscented clay clumping litters of different brands, it’s easy to see that not all clumping litters are created equally…and that many cats have specific individual preferences.
But back to general preferences of cats. One thing that often surprises me when I go to a client’s home is how dirty their litter box is. It’s not unusual for folks to clean a box every other day or even less – even in homes with multiple cats and just one litter box. I personally find it gross, and I assume that cats would too. But do we REALLY know if a dirty litter box bothers cats?
Using group-housed cats in the Purina colony, researchers looked at several questions by offering cats a choice of two litter boxes over the course of four days, and determining their preference by whether urine and feces had been deposited in either box.
Experiment 1 offered cats the choice between a clean box, and a box which had urine and feces of a familiar cat in it. Output determined that cats preferred the clean box over the used one.
Experiment 2 presented a choice between a clean box and a box that had been treated by adding only the odor of either (1) another cat’s urine, (2) another cat’s feces or (3) the odor of both. Cats used both the clean box and the “stinky” boxes equally.
Experiment 3 looked to verify that it was the physical obstructions caused by urine clumps and poops in the box, and not the odor, that was driving the cats’ preferences. To do this, experimenters created odorless fake urine clumps with saline, and odorless fake poop out of gelatin placed in silicone molds (do they make poop shaped silicone molds?!?!?). They also manipulated the amount of “obstructions” in the box: 1 clump vs 3 clump and 1 log vs 3 logs – to mimic the possible amount of material that might be in a box if a cat lives alone or with multiple other cats.
Cats preferred the clean box overall, unless there was just one gelatin poo in the box, in which case they showed no strong preference. When given the additional choice, between a box with one fake urine clump and a box with one gelatin poo, the cats also preferred the box with the fake poo. When there were MORE obstructions, the cats in the study showed a stronger preference for the clean box.
So what does this study tell us? A box free of obstruction is more important to cats than a box that is completely free of urine or fecal odor. You don’t necessarily need to sanitize your box if you are scooping it daily.
It also suggests what most of us already believed – that cats don’t really mind sharing a box with other cats as long as it’s cleaned regularly. We should note that the cats in this study all lived in groups and got along with the other cats in these groups, so it’s possible that cats who don’t get along might be less open to sharing (although we have no evidence at this time to say that, so someone should get on that study!).
Clumps and logs in the litter may make it harder for cats to find a clean spot to dig in, or might be unpleasant to step on. A bigger box, or more boxes would help with both of these issues, but there’s no way around it: