I was super excited to get to spend some time talking cats with the super-cool Alie Ward, and the results of our conversation are available for you to listen to over at the Ologies podcast!
Last month I also had the honor of speaking to a sold out crowd at the San Diego Natural History Museum about "The Science of a Happy Cat." Missed it? Don't despair, I'll be giving the talk (with a few minor tweaks here and there) at Cat Camp in NYC this June. Tickets for Cat Camp are on sale now!
What occupies my time these days (and prevents me from writing more blog posts!) is my work at UC Davis, where I'm a postdoctoral researcher. I'm working on a few projects, including the best ways to care for delicate neonatal kittens. KQED's Deep Look did an amazing up close video (what's cuter than kittens up close??) including a shout out to our project. Check it out!
Speaking of kittens, we're holding a one-day KITTEN CONFERENCE at UC Davis on Saturday, April 27th. I'll be discussing some of our kitten-related research, but the conference will feature many amazing speakers, such as Hannah Shaw (the "Kitten Lady") and LVT Ellen Carozza. Registration is OPEN!! For those of you who can't attend, a webinar option is available!!
And while we are on the topic of research, Dr. Tony Buffington and I are also JUST LAUNCHING a new survey-based study. If you are 18 years of age or older and your cat is between 1 and 10 years of age, please consider filling out this web-based survey about your cat and your home environment. Your responses will help us learn more about relations between cats, their homes, and feline health and welfare.
Some behaviors that cat owners find problematic are in many cases just normal cat behaviors. Scratching is one of those commonly reported “nuisance behaviors” which is a perfectly natural behavior for cats. However, if not directed toward acceptable objects, feline scratching can lead to humans living with shredded couches; in some cases humans resort to painful and potentially harmful procedures, such as amputation of the cat’s toes (commonly referred to as “declawing”; I’ve written about the potential harms of declawing here).
One hundred and sixteen cat owners who brought their cats to the veterinary clinic at the University of Georgia participated in the survey. In addition to your usual household demographic questions, participants were asked if their cat scratched any objects “not designated for scratching” and if so, to describe the type of object, the material, and the angle of the object in relation to the floor (e.g., horizontal or vertical). They were asked to detail how often their cat scratched the object(s) in question, the techniques they used to stop scratching behavior, whether they provided their cat with designated items for scratching, and how they encouraged their cat to use the designated item.
The cats in the study ranged in age from 1 month to 18 years, were pretty evenly distributed between the sexes, and were mostly (79.3%) indoors-only and spayed/neutered (85.2%). Eighty-seven percent of cats still had their claws (why include declawed cats in a study of undesirable scratching behavior?).
A whopping 83.9% of respondents reported that their cat scratched inappropriate items, with the majority of cats scratching said items daily. Cats overall preferred fabric chairs, sofas and other furniture – primarily things that are vertical in relation to the floor – but they also really loved carpets for scratching. Despite the frequency and type of objects scratched, owners estimated the damage at less than $100 for more scratching (y’all got some cheap couches in Georgia?).
Owners reported several ways they tried to get their cats to stop scratching, including yelling, spanking, spraying water on their cat, covering furniture with tinfoil, and providing their cat with a designated scratching item. None of these techniques was related to the reported frequency of “inappropriate scratching.”
Most cats (76.1%) were provided with a designated scratching item, often a scratching pole or pad. Most poles were carpet, sisal or a combination of the two; and most scratch pads were made of cardboard. Cat owners also had several methods for trying to get their cat to use the scratching item, including praise, catnip, treats, playing with a toy nearby, or placing their cat near the scratching item. No particular method was associated with success or failure, except placing the cat nearby, which was associated with less, not more, success.
The study gives us some insight into what cats are doing in the homes, and what humans are doing in response. I have a few minor quibbles with the study, one being that the data is really old – collected in 2011; in the past seven years, there’s been a bit of a cat “renaissance” – the options for cat trees and scratching objects has really expanded and hopefully nowadays cats are being provided with more and better options for scratching (I can dare to dream, can't I?).
The sample size is relatively small, focuses on cat owners in one city, and we don’t know how representative it is of all cat owners. That said, internet samples have their own problem in that pet owners who are willing to fill out surveys are also not always representative of all pet owners, so it’s nice to see a study that relied on pen and paper surveys with real people!
Many cats in this study were provided with scratching items, but still scratched other things. Whether the designated scratching items met cats’ needs is hard to determine. The average height of vertical scratching poles provided by study participants was between 2 and 3 feet tall, which falls short of the height and sturdiness that many cats prefer – there’s a reason they love sofas – they’re tall and sturdy, and usually in a good spot for the territorial marking that scratching behavior in part represents. Although 22.1% of people who tried to encourage their cat to use the designated item gave their cats treats for scratching, only one person reported using clicker training to do so.
There was almost no relationship between human behavior and cat scratching behavior, but there could be too much variability in human behavior to see an effect; for example, did everyone in the study who “taught their cat how to use the designated scratching item” do so in exactly the same way? I’m guessing not.
So what can we conclude from this study? Many cats scratch chairs and carpet; but almost as many cats (79% of those who had a provided scratch post or pad) were ALSO using their designated scratching posts or pads. Most cats in the study were only provided with one designated scratching option, so one may not be enough. My own personal and professional experience: give your cat multiple scratching options that they like, in different areas of your house, and they will rarely if ever touch your furniture. Offer choices and you’ll learn their scratching preferences in no time…and save your couch from being shredded too.
Reference: Moesta, A., Keys, D., & Crowell-Davis, S. (2017). Survey of cat owners on features and preventative measures of feline scratching of inappropriate objects: a pilot study. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 1098612X17733185.
For many cat owners, there’s nothing more stressful than getting their cat to the vet. And it’s not necessarily the vet visit the pet parent minds so much as getting their cat into the cat carrier. In one study, the stress of getting cats to the veterinarian was cited as a reason many people don’t EVEN BOTHER taking their cat to the doctor for a regular checkup.
Make one move toward the closet, or the garage door, perhaps you’re already sweating bullets…your cat picks up on the signs…and then before you know it, they have tucked themselves deeply underneath your bed, just out of reach. If you’re lucky, perhaps you can grab and pull out your cat without being bitten or scratched; some of you might even resort to scaring your cat out from under the bed with a broom or vacuum (I wish I was kidding, but all the above happen all too frequently). You might even have to just cancel that vet appointment at the last minute…
How did we get here? Why are so many people resorting to such heavy-handed, fear-inducing, traumatic methods to put a cat in a box (I thought cats loved boxes?). Methods that no doubt will make the whole process even harder next time around?
The first challenge is the pervasive disbelief that we can train cats at all, much less train them to willingly go into a cat carrier. Second, is getting information on training techniques to cat owners so they can know where to start!
A new study tested the effects of a carrier training protocol on signs of stress in cats while being transported in a car and then examined in a veterinary office. The study, Carrier training cats reduces stress on transport to a veterinary practice, conducted at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, was recently published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.
Researchers tested 22 cats. Each cat was individually taken into a new room and given 5 minutes to adjust. Next the carrier was placed on the floor and the cat was given 3 minutes to enter voluntarily, at which point they were placed in the carrier. All cats were given treats during the 10-minute car ride across campus to the veterinary exam. The cats were kept in a waiting room for 5 minutes, then brought into a separate room for an exam. Cats were given 3 minutes to exit the carrier on their own, at which point the carrier was dismantled and the examination was conducted in the bottom half of the cat carrier.
The cats were split into 2 groups, with half of the cats receiving “carrier training” which consisted of 7 steps. To summarize the steps:
Presenting the cat with just the bottom half of the carrier, and giving the cats treats when they approach or get in the carrier; luring them closer to carrier with treats if they wouldn’t approach on their own
Repeating step one with the top and door added, with the door open, rewarding any approach or entering, as well as any calm behavior in the carrier
Moving and closing the door while the cat is inside, tossing treats into the carrier through the front door
Picking up the carrier for short periods at first, gradually increasing the time the carrier is lifted with the cat secured inside, rewarding the cat for calm behavior
Carrying the cat to the car, offering tuna while in the carrier in the car
Turning on the engine, offering tuna
Short car rides, gradually increasing the time in the car (up to 3 minutes), paired with food, petting and verbal praise
Each cat was given a total of 28 training sessions over the course of 6 weeks. Three of 11 cats made completed all seven stages, with six cats getting to stage 7 and two cats to stage 6. The control group of cats did not receive any type of training before the second veterinary exam, which was the next part of the study.
The researchers measured stress using the “Cat Stress Score,” a commonly used measure of feline behaviors and postures that suggest whether a cat is relaxed, tense or fearful. A camera was placed in the cat carrier to observe the cats’ behaviors during the car ride, and temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate were measured during the vet exam. It was also noted whether cats entered their carriers willingly, whether they left the carrier by themselves during the exam, and whether they showed fearful or aggressive behaviors during the veterinary exam.
Results showed that all cats had a lowered stress score during the car ride to the second veterinary exam; but cats in the training group experienced a much larger reduction in stress scores. Cats in the training group were more likely to show behaviors such as kneading or rubbing against the carrier. Cats with carrier training were able to be examined more quickly, although they were not more likely to leave the carrier on their own.
Not all behaviors were affected by the training; for example, there were no differences between groups on any of the physiological measures of stress (respiratory rate, heart rate, temperature). There were also no differences between the two groups in stress scores during the time in the waiting room or during the exam. It should also be noted that even though the cats were randomized into either a training or control group, 7 out of 11 of the cats in the training group went into the carrier on their own right from the get-go, whereas only 4 of the cats in the control group did, suggested that there may have been some personality differences or different experiences or associations with carriers between the two groups. Finally, because the study used laboratory cats, we don’t yet know how precisely this would apply to cats in homes…is someone getting on that study???
But, THIS study does provide evidence for the power of positive training! With just a few weeks of short training sessions, cats showed less stress during a car ride in a carrier and were easier to examine by a veterinarian. Those sound like two major improvements for cats to me! If you need more advice on how to train YOUR cat to love their carrier, here are a few resources I like:
But our cats don’t always have the choice to manage the stressors in their environment, and stress reduction techniques (such as exercise) may depend on what their humans provide for them. Being dependent on humans also means that cats are dependent on their owners recognizing that they are stressed in the first place!
Unfortunately, stress can manifest in health issues in cats too. One of the most common health issues associated with stress in cats is feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC). In this case, a cat has clinical lower urinary tract signs (LUTS) such as straining to urinate, urinating outside the litter box, or blood in the urine but diagnostics cannot determine a specific cause for the signs (the term idiopathic means disease or condition of unknown cause).
A cat who presents with LUTS is likely experiencing some form of stress. But how do we know what the stressors might be? A recent study, “Epidemiological study of feline idiopathic cystitis in Seoul, South Korea,” sought to determine what factors were related to a higher risk of FIC in cats who live in South Korea. The researchers interviewed owners of 58 cats who had been diagnosed with FIC, as well as 281 owners of control cats who had never had symptoms of FIC. The questions were focused on the cat’s living environment, behavior, and diet as well as questions about the litter box set up.
Based on the records of over 4000 cats in one practice, almost 3% of cats presented with LUTS and more than half of those cats were diagnosed with FIC, suggesting an overall prevalence of FIC of 1.77%. The researchers used statistical analyses to look for relationship between certain aspects of the cats’ environments and behavior and the likelihood of being diagnosed with FIC. This basically involves comparing the number of FIC cats who lived in an environment with a particular feature (such as other cats or outdoor access) compared with control cats.
The results suggested five key factors that were related to FIC: being male, having a litter box with non-clumping litter, living with other cats, living in an apartment (versus a house), and not having an elevated vantage point for use (such as a cat condo or vertical space). So, for example, although there were equal numbers of male and female cats in the control group, males made up almost 76% of the FIC cats. This means that male cats were 2.34 times as likely to be diagnosed with FIC compared to female cats. The effect was strongest in cats who did not have a vantage point in the home, who were 4.64 times as likely to have FIC compared to cats with a vantage point.
Some other things seemed to contribute to FIC, although the relationship wasn’t as strong, such as shared food bowls, whether cats had access to a hiding space, and being middle aged. These are risk factors that merit more careful consideration in future studies.
Things that did not appear to be related to the likelihood of a diagnosis of FIC in this study included the style of the litter box (covered or uncovered), the number of people in the home, and having access to the outdoors.
We would be naïve to think that stress only impacts the urinary system in cats. It’s likely related to several other disease processes, and studies like the current one help us paint a picture of what causes stress in cats overall, even though it can’t necessarily tell us what will stress out YOUR cat. That’s up for you to do your best to understand and prevent, based on what you know about your cat and by providing him or her with things that make the environment safer, more engaging, and by giving your cat a sense of control via choices (in other words, an abundance of desirable resources!).
Living with other cats or not having a vantage point is not a guarantee that a cat will develop FIC, they are just risk factors. It’s possible that there are interaction effects, where cats who live with other cats are just fine if they have a vantage point, or the risks of being male increase if you also use a non-clumping litter. Plenty of cats may cope just fine with living in an apartment, but knowing these risks, we should do what we can to reduce their effects. By providing your cat with a vantage point, and adequate resources, it is possible we can remedy situations that might lead to stress in the first place – and with the added benefit of possibly reducing the risks of disease.
Kim, Y., Kim, H., Pfeiffer, D., & Brodbelt, D. (2017). Epidemiological study of feline idiopathic cystitis in Seoul, South Korea. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 1098612X17734067.
I’m a big fan of food puzzles as an enrichment choice for cats. As natural predators, cats have evolved to work for their food. We brought them inside, handed them a bowl of food, and took their jobs away. At least that’s the way I like to think about it.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with food puzzles, check out the website Food Puzzles for Cats (disclaimer, I am co-owner of the site, but I get no financial benefits from it!). Food puzzles are like other types of foraging enrichments that are used with zoo and laboratory animals. They’re commonly used with pet dogs (e.g., the Kong), and more recently, food puzzles are increasingly being designed for cats. The idea is that an animal must forage for food – for cats this can range from a very simple activity (such as rolling a ball, allowing dry food to fall out) to more complex problem-solving (such as having to slide open doorways to access a well of food).
Nineteen household cats participated in the study. Cats were either free-fed or fed once or twice per day. Using a crossover design, half of the cats were recorded for a week while feeding from their regular food bowls first, then recorded for a week while feeding from food puzzles; the other half of the cats were recorded using food puzzles first, then back to the bowl. Cats were given a week to acclimate to food puzzles and a week between conditions. All cats successfully transitioned to food puzzles to eat all their food. Feeding happened according to the previous feeding schedule for each cat (freely available food, or fed at one or two mealtimes per day).
Eleven of the cats used the Indoor Hunting Feeder which has five matching mouse-shaped puzzles, and the other eight cats used five different food puzzles made by PetSafe, including the SlimCat and Egg-Cersizer. Cats were assigned to puzzles based on an initial preference test.
Results showed no differences in activity levels based on how cats were eating (bowl vs puzzle). There was also no effect of puzzle type (Indoor Hunting Feeder vs PetSafe puzzles). In fact, the only real effect was that of age – older cats were less active in general.
The results may seem counter-intuitive, because after all, didn’t the cats have to move around to get the food out of the puzzles? Well there are a few possibilities:
The cats have to move around to get the food out of the puzzles, but cats eating out of bowls compensate by moving around at other times – in either case, most of the cats in the study spent the majority of time inactive.
The sample size was small, which might make it hard to tease apart differences between the bowl-feeders and puzzle-feeders. In statistical terms, we call this “underpowered.”
Food puzzles really don’t increase activity (but perhaps they offer other benefits, such as slowing down feeding, and providing mental stimulation, warding off boredom or other problematic behaviors).
The effect of food puzzles might be dependent on other factors (such as offering multiple types of enrichment).
I’m sure you can think of other explanations! Other studies have demonstrated an increase in anticipatory activity levels in cats when they are waiting for a meal, and that increasing the number of meals per day is a good way to increase activity in cats. Moreover, it would be great for someone to repeat this study with even more cats to increase statistical power, so that we can be certain the results are reliable.
So, if food puzzles DON’T increase activity levels in cats, should we just forget about ‘em? No way! As my co-authors and I reported a few years ago, we have seen many benefits of food puzzles when used with cats. I found it very encouraging that 100% of the cats in this study had no problem switching to puzzle feeding!
The benefits of food puzzles for cats may not be exactly what we thought in regard to activity levels (at least in the short term), but given the expansive research on the benefits of foraging enrichment for other species, I’d say the positive effects for cats most likely outweigh any failure to increase activity. That said, we might have to re-frame how we talk about those positive effects.
Dantas, L. M., Delgado, M. M., Johnson, I., & Buffington, C. T. (2016). Food puzzles for cats: feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 18(9), 723-732.
Naik et al., (2018) Pilot study evaluating the impact of feeding method on overall activity of neutered indoor pet cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, doi: 10.1016/j.jveb.2018.02.001
Upper respiratory infection (URI) is a real problem for cats in shelters – not only are cats with URI frequently quarantined, delaying adoption – they must experience both social isolation and medical treatment, just adding to an already stressed cat’s stress. Sadly, URI is also a common reason for euthanasia, as many shelters don’t have the resources to care for these cats. I’ll use my own cat as an example, many years ago, she was 10-months old, adorable, and on the euthanasia list at a local shelter for clear, nasal discharge (AKA URI). Luckily, my dear friend (and shelter co-worker at the time) pulled her from that shelter so she could be placed up for adoption at the shelter we worked at. We scooped her up; she never needed treatment for the URI symptoms, and 14 years later, she’s happy and healthy and an important part of my family!
Shelters were asked several questions about housing, management and other environmental factors. The questions of interest to the study were: amount of space provided for cats in their cage or housing, whether a hiding box was provided, how frequently cats were moved during the first week of their shelter stay, whether young and adult cats were housed in the same rooms, and whether cats were given an intranasal vaccine at intake.
Then shelters were asked to track cats presenting with URI symptoms every day. Cats who arrived at the shelter with symptoms, or who “broke” with URI symptoms within the first two days of their stay were not included, and were considered “pre-existing,” rather than shelter-acquired cases. To determine whether particular viruses were responsible for URI symptoms in different shelters, over 300 healthy cats across the nine shelters had their eyes and mouths sampled for genetic analyses designed to look for calicivirus, herpesvirus, and three other common viruses.
Seventeen percent of cats who entered the shelter contracted URI during their stay. The results suggested cats who had more than 8 square feet of living space and who were moved only one or two times during their first week at the shelter were less likely to come down with URI. Mycoplasma felis and feline herpesvirus were the most prevalent viruses in shelters.
Interestingly, there were higher rates of URI in shelters that provided cats with a hiding space. Intranasal vaccines were also associated with more URI, for unclear reasons - although one possibility is that intranasal vaccines elicit some clinical signs that appear URI-like. There was no effect of whether adult and juveniles cats were housed together.
It should be noted that most shelters (8/9) kept cats in spaces that were SMALLER than 8 square feet. Three shelters always provided cats with a hiding space, three did sometimes, and three did not. In the shelters that provided a hiding space, almost all (5/6) had small cages. Six out of nine shelters moved cats more than twice in their first week in the shelter.
So an important question is whether it was the hiding space per se that was related to the higher URI count, or if it is the association between a smaller cage and the hiding spaces that led to that result. Given that a hiding box is considered an important way to reduce stress in shelter cats, perhaps a larger space is just as (if not more) important. The authors suggest that the hiding space may have reduced available floor space for the cats, which in and of itself may be stressful.
Many shelters are now moving toward the “double cage” model, where the cat’s housing space is two cages connected via a portal. The portal allows for the litter box to be separated from other resources, and also allows shelter care attendants to spot-clean cats’ living spaces while minimizing the stress to the cat (especially for those who are afraid of humans). It also doubles the cat’s space, which we should now be somewhat convinced is a good thing for shelter cats.
Given the stress of being in unfamiliar territory, with strange and often scary sounds, smells, and handling, it’s no surprise that cats in shelters are vulnerable. This study adds to our understanding of how to mitigate that threat: by giving them space, and keeping them in place! Shelters should strive to increase housing space for cats, and to minimize the number of times cats are moved around in shelters!
Wagner, D. C., Kass, P. H., & Hurley, K. F. (2018). Cage size, movement in and out of housing during daily care, and other environmental and population health risk factors for feline upper respiratory disease in nine North American animal shelters. PloS one, 13(1), e0190140.
Everyone still wants to know, does my cat love me? And now, thanks to technology and an increased understanding of the human-cat relationship, we can take a better look at whether your cat misses you when you’re gone.
Are cats aloof loners who don’t miss you? Or are they secretly pining away for your return while you are at work? Cats have a reputation for being a low-maintenance pet. Throw down some food and a litter box, and they’re fine, right? But I think the reputation is a bit overblown. It used to drive me nuts when I worked in an animal shelter and the adoption staff would direct someone toward adopting a cat because they worked too much for a dog. Cats have needs, and although they don’t need to be taken for a walk to go to the bathroom like dogs do, it doesn’t mean they don’t need exercise, affection, and other mental stimulation to keep them engaged. I believe this “low-maintenance” stereotype is often the culprit when it comes to people experiencing behavior problems with their cats.
The study was conducted with fourteen cats, in their homes, in Sweden. The cats normally spent most of their time indoors, and if they were allowed outdoors, it was only with supervision. The cats were tested on two consecutive days: on one day, the owner departed for 30 minutes, and on the other day, the owner was gone for four hours. All cats experienced both conditions, and the order of conditions was balanced, meaning that for some cats, the owner was gone for 30 minutes on the first day, and for other cats, the owner was gone for four hours on the first day.
Digital cameras were used to record the cats’ behaviors and vocalizations, and owners’ behavior when leaving and returning. Behaviors noted included resting, playing, grooming, walking, sitting, attention to owner, meowing, and purring (you can download a list of all the behaviors here). The cats were on camera for about 70% of the time guardians were gone. So, what happened when the guardians left?
Well, not too much. There were no differences in human or cat behavior before the guardian left or while they were gone. Cats spent more of their time resting during the longer separation.
When guardians returned, cats were more likely to purr and stretch after the four-hour separation, than the short period of separation. Guardians were more likely to talk to their cats when they returned if they were gone for a longer time, but the purring and stretching were not dependent on that human interaction. This suggests that the cats may have noticed that their human was absent for a longer period, although it is unclear what the stretching indicates.
Did the cats miss their humans? I don’t think this study provides us with a slam dunk either way. I love that the study looked at cats’ natural behaviors in their homes, and I think it’s great starting point for looking at how cats respond to human absence and presence. But the sample size is quite small, and as most research does to me, I was left with more ideas and questions than answers.
It would be great to look at cats’ activity patterns through the day, and how those are dictated by human activity. One challenge with videorecording is that when the cat is off camera, you don’t know what they are doing.
I recently put a Jawbone UP on my cat to see how active she is and when. What I can see is that when I’m sleeping, she’s sleeping. And that she has clear patterns of activity that reflect, to an extent, our activity in the home (note: this is not a scientific result!). In fact, I could match my fitness tracker with hers (correcting for when I’m not home, of course) and compare. Hmmm, I think I just came up with my next research project.
I also think that four hours isn’t necessarily long enough to know about how cats really respond to human absence. I don’t know what the work culture is like in Sweden, but most of my kitty clients are gone eight to twelve hours a day (if not more) if they work outside the home.
If the guardian absence wasn’t routine, and since it was different in each day of the experiment, we may not see the same level of greeting behaviors that some of us see when we come and go on a strict schedule. Just like dogs, I’ve seen many situations where cats anticipate their human’s return from work, and greet them at the door or show increased activity at that time.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot we don’t know about separation anxiety in cats, partly because we tend to use dogs as a reference point. Many dogs exhibit overt signs of separation anxiety, which can cause great stress for dog and human alike. Cats may show signs of distress that are less obvious – such as hiding, withdrawing from human interaction, or even sickness behaviors, which we know are triggered by stress and changes in routine.
Until we know more, I think we should assume that cats have needs while we are gone, and even if they aren’t meeting us at the front door. Most of us have to leave the home regularly, but I think that leaving your cat with bird feeders to watch, a sun spot to snooze in and a food puzzle to play with while you’re gone, and providing them with a structured routine including exercise and affection when you’re home are a great way to head off any separation distress at the pass!
Eriksson, M., Keeling, L. J., & Rehn, T. (2017). Cats and owners interact more with each other after a longer duration of separation. PloS one, 12(10), e0185599.
Stella, J. L., Lord, L. K., & Buffington, C. T. (2011). Sickness behaviors in response to unusual external events in healthy cats and cats with feline interstitial cystitis. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 238(1), 67-73.
A recent study helps us better understand cat elimination behavior
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.
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!!