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.
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!!
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.
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.
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?
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!
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!!
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!!
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.”
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!