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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?

Many cats suffer from osteoarthritis pain.  Photo via Max Pixel/Creative Commons License http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Wood-Cats-Cat-Tree-Trunk-2026474

A recent paper (Caregiver placebo effect in analgesic clinical trials for painful cats with naturally occurring degenerative joint disease) from a group in North Carolina, which included the fabulous pain specialist Duncan Lascelles, reviewed five studies of pain treatment of joint disease in cats, first looking at how caregivers reported improvement in the symptoms of their pet cats when the cats, unbeknownst to the human, received a placebo treatment. To look at whether there could be a caregiver placebo effect or a placebo-by-proxy effect, the paper compared the reported caregiver outcomes with objective measures of improvement. Let’s take a closer look.

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.

Graph by Dr. Tony Buffington

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.

To read more about the placebo effect in animals, this article by Dr. Frank McMillan and this blog post by the SkeptiVet are two good places to start!

Thank you to Dr. Tony Buffington for putting the graph together!

 

 

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!!

 

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/

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.”

 

Reference: 

Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria)

  • Sebastiaan Bol,
  • Jana Caspers,
  • Lauren Buckingham,
  • Gail Denise Anderson-Shelton,
  • Carrie Ridgway,
  • C. A. Tony Buffington,
  • Stefan Schulz and
  • Evelien M. Bunnik
BMC Veterinary Research 2017 13:70
DOI: 10.1186/s12917-017-0987-6

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!

Have you ever wondered why cats tongues are so raspy?

I was lucky to spend a day in December at the Cat Town Cafe in Oakland assisting with this cool video by KQED Deep Look.

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!

 

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:

  1. Understood what cats generally prefer about litter boxes
  2. 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?

Well a new study has cracked another cat code. “Does Previous Use Affect Litter Box Appeal in Multi-Cat Households?” published in the journal Behavioral Processes, sought to explore what factors related to box cleanliness might impact preferences in cats, and which ones might not matter so much.

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.

Image from Behavioral Processes, authors J.J. Ellis, R.T.S. McGowan, F. Martin

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:

YOU GOTTA SCOOP!

 

 

How do our cats tell us if they aren’t feeling well? Very subtle-y.

Cats are notorious for hiding signs of illness, and if they are lucky, their human takes them to the vet once a year for a check-up. A lot can happen during that year, so what if I told you that there was something easy you could do to help you assess your cat’s health in-between?

Do you have multiple cats and a food management issue? Do you suspect that Buddy is eating all the food while Fluffy nibbles?

Do you have an older cat?

Do you have an overweight cat?

Then I’m here to convince you that you need a scale for your cat. A good way to get a handle on your cat’s health is to weigh them regularly. A scale is not going to tell you WHAT might be wrong, but knowing your cat’s normal weight and tracking changes can help you see if there might be an underlying issue that needs a vet check, or if your cat’s exercise and weight loss plan is paying off. Weight loss is a sign of many chronic illnesses, especially in senior cats. To that end, I encourage you to see a scale as part of your kitty supply kit, alongside with those interactive toys, litter boxes, and scratching posts.

I recently spoke with Dr. Tony Buffington, DVM (whose credentials include being a Veterinary Nutritionist, Professor Emeritus at Ohio State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, and all around amazing guy) about why you should weigh your cat routinely.

Dr. Buffington said a key issue is that, “It can be difficult (for owners) to accurately "guesstimate" changes in a cat's weight, due to conformation, hair coat, etc. Unintentional weight changes raise my "index of suspicion" that a problem may be developing.”

When one of my cats was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease a few years ago, I borrowed a friend’s baby scale so I could track her weight. Well she ended up loving it so much that I just bought one. I really like the scooped baby scales like the one by Health O Meter, because…well, once you add a fleece, it doubles as a great cat bed.

Now if you are thinking, how the heck am I going to get my cat on a scale regularly? Perhaps you already struggle with giving your cat medication, or your cat (like many obese cats) does not enjoy being picked up or held.

Well as Dr. Buffington says, you can “teach your cat to enjoy using (a scale).” In a study he is currently conducting, he and his colleagues “asked participants to weigh their cats every day at first to get them and their cat into the habit of regular weighing (which was found to be one of the best predictors of maintenance of lost weight in humans).” Regular can mean anything from weekly to monthly, depending on your cat.

  1. First step, get the scale and add a comfy blanket, fleece or towel. Put it somewhere safe and cozy, or in a nice sun spot.
  2. Give your cat positive associations with the scale by placing treats nearby. Once your cat is eating the treats, you can lure her onto the scale with more treats.
  3. Lure your cat into a sit position and give more treats!

If you use treats consistently and let your cat get comfortable with the scale on her own terms (rather than picking her up and putting her on it), she will soon see getting on the scale as a way to get treats from you. Tare the scale, and call her – or place the scale somewhere that she learns – this is the time that sitting on the scale = delicious treats. Soon all you have to do is put the scale in this location, and your cat will come on over. Record your cat’s weight, and you’re good to go.

If you don’t think your cat will do this, all I can say is that I was able to train wild squirrels to get on a scale without ever touching them.

 

 

 

 

Training will work on your cat. And if your cat ISN’T older, or ill, or overweight, training them to like the scale now will pay you back in spades later in her life.

In Dr. Buffington’s study, “only one of the eight owners reported difficulty with weighing, partially due to the difficulty of finding a permanent, stable place in his small apartment for the scale, and partly due to his erratic (4th year vet student) schedule.”

If your cat is not that food motivated, try using a toy or catnip or a heated pad to lure her onto the scale, or get her in the habit of eating her meals on the scale.

When is your cat’s weight change a concern? Well, the best person to ask is your veterinarian, because it depends on your cat’s health. Dr. Buffington suggested, that “over 5% of unintended weight change over three months would concern me.”

So, if you resolve to do ONE new thing for your cat this year, I’m saying investing in a scale is an easy thing…and if your cat is anything like mine, she’ll just think you got her a new bed.

Yet here I am, packing my bags to head to DC for the conference of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. This year, one of the themes is feline behavior. That's right, 3 days of nothing but cat people and cat behavior!!! I'm really excited to hang with other cat peeps, including Kris Chandroo, Ingrid Johnson, Julie Hecht, Liz Bales, and Sarah Ellis (and I'm sure many more!). There will be plenty of talks from cat experts I'm excited to hear from!! I'll be tweeting from the conference, and hopefully a blog or two will happen in response!

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This will be a nice break from a semester of data cleaning, writing, teaching, grading, job applications, and consulting! I've been busy and it's really cramping my blog-style! ...continue reading

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Do you know what your cat does when she eats? You're probably giving me a little bit of a blank stare right now, like, she puts her face in the bowl and chews her food (or maybe like some cats, she doesn't chew it much at all…).

You throw your cat's food down and walk away so many times, but you might be missing some of the interesting behaviors that your cat is engaging in while she eats. Furthermore, a new study in the Veterinary Journal suggests that the behaviors that your cat engages in while she's eating might tell you just how much she likes the food.

Before we get into this new study, let's review some of the things we already know about how cats eat. Cats are obligate carnivores, and their teeth are really designed for shearing meat into strips, which they then swallow mostly whole. Not a lot of chewing going on… have you ever seen a cat throw up after they eat some dry food? It looks pretty much the same as it looked going down…

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Note the head tilt while eating! Photo of Hank the Cat eating, by Robert W. Howington. https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitetrashtexas/4309808872

As obligate hunters, cats also engage in a few interesting behaviors while they are eating, such as placing some of their food on the ground or tilting their head to the side while they chew. This behavior is because if they were eating a bird or rat, the body would likely be dragging on the ground. The harder the food is to chew, the more you'll see a cat's head tilt. Cats also shake their heads when they pick up a food item or a small bite of food. Leyhausen attributed this behavior to the instinct to shake a bird that has been killed to loosen the feathers. Cool! Even your kibble fed kitty has instincts related to the cat's evolution as a predator.

The new study, A Novel Set of Behavioural Indicators for Measuring Perception of Food by Cats, took place in Finland. The goal was to categorize what types of behaviors cats presented when eating their favorite food, as well as a less favored type of food, and finally to test out whether or not cats would notice if there was a tiny pill hidden inside their favorite food. ...continue reading