companion animal research

Most of us are right-handed, with 9% of humans being left-handed, and about 1% leaning toward some level of ambidexterity. But what about our pet cats? Well, thanks to science, we do know a little bit about whether cats are “right-pawed” or “left-pawed.” In fact, there have been at least 9 papers spanning almost 65 years of research looking at the paw preferences of cats. These studies usually use a food-related task, but some have used a light beam or toy to stimulate cats to approach and touch a stimulus. The paw that is used to touch or approach reflects a cat’s “paw preference.”

Previous research has suggested that unlike humans, cat pawedness is a bit all over the place. For example, in 1955, tests of paw preference in 60 cats showed 20% to be right-handed, 38% left-handed, and 42% to be ambidextrous (Cole, 1955). However, these preferences can be very stable, and a 1997 paper reported that 60% of cats used their preferred paw 100 percent of the time (Pike & Maitland, 1997)! The effect of paw-preference also appears to be strongest for a food-related task. When cats are tested with a toy, they seem to be much more ambidextrous in their reaching behavior (Wells & Milsopp, 2009).

There are also sex effects of pawedness in cats. In 1990, researchers tested the paw preferences of 66 cats by having them reach into a hole for a piece of food. Male cats were slightly more likely to be left-pawed, and females were more likely to use their right paw to get the food (Tan et al., 1990). The tendency of males to be lefties and females to be righties has been found in other studies, and in fact, when female cats are given an intramuscular injection of testosterone, their right-paw preference is weakened (Tan et al., 1991).

A new study looked at whether there were breed differences in paw preferences. The study, “Laterality as a tool for assessing breed differences in emotional reactivity in the domestic cat, Felis silvestris catus” was recently published and is open-access in the journal Animals. Now personally, I think the title is a bit misleading, which I’ll get to later. First let’s review the study and what the researchers found.

My cat demonstrating the experimental procedure. She appears to be mostly a lefty.

Cats of four breeds (Persians, Maine Coons, Ragdolls and the hybrid breed Bengals) were tested. These breeds were chosen because they are often described as having distinct personality characteristics related to emotional reactivity. Fifty-six owned cats between the ages of 1 and 9 participated in the study, which occurred in each cat’s home. The cats were tested for paw preference with 50 trials at the Catit Senses Food Maze. The Catit is a tower-style food puzzle that requires cats to fish food out with a paw, and the food in question for this study was “Dreamies” cat treats (note for US readers, Dreamies is just the Euro version of “Temptations!”). Each cat was given 10 treats at a time until they had made 50 choices, and the paw they used to try to get a treat out (regardless of whether they were successful) was recorded. Then the results were analyzed to see if the choices that cats made were different from what you would expect by chance.

Dreamies are known as Temptations in the USA and appear to be delicious to most cats.

As found in previous studies, some cats were left-pawed (45%), some right-pawed (35%) and some ambilateral (20%). As in previous studies, As far as breed differences are concerned, only Bengal cats showed a somewhat consistent paw preference, with over 80% of the 12 Bengal cats being left-paw dominant. Ragdolls and Maine Coons were more likely to have a paw preference than be ambilateral, whereas Persian cats were equally likely to be left-pawed, right-pawed or ambilateral.

So what does it all mean, and should we even care about what paw your cat prefers to use? Generally it appears that all vertebrate (and maybe some invertebrates) show a trait known as lateralization. This means that the separate hemispheres of the brain may be specialized for particular tasks, and the two halves of the brain are not exactly the same in their function or the information they process.

Generally speaking, your dominant limb corresponds to the opposite hemisphere of your brain. Right-handedness reflects the dominance of the left brain hemisphere. So…back to the title of this paper, “Laterality as a tool for assessing breed differences in emotional reactivity in the domestic cat.” Hey, where did the emotional reactivity come from? The research didn’t look at any personality/temperament traits in the cats who were tested, only at their paw preference. So how can laterality help us understand emotional reactivity?

Only Bengals showed a breed-wide tendency to have a paw preference. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Some other research in other species has linked the right hemisphere of the brain with aggressive behavior and heightened responses to threatening stimuli. A previous survey-based study suggested that Bengal cats are highly predatory, and some non-peer reviewed work suggested that Bengals show more aggressive behavior than other breeds of cats. Based on that, the authors make a wee bit of a    s   t   r   e   t   c   h    that the lefty tendencies of Bengals are an indicator of emotional reactivity. Now, that may (or may not) be true, but it’s not what the authors actually tested, which is why I think the title of the paper is rather misleading. And although it’s convenient that their results for Bengals are in the same direction of their prediction, we shouldn’t mistake this for direct evidence of emotional reactivity.

Aside from that, I think this is a nifty study – which you can even replicate in the privacy of your own home if you have cats who are willing! Complementing the paw preference test with other measures of behavior and personality would help us better understand whether there is a relationship between pawed-ness and emotional reactivity. But for now, we can say that for whatever reason, it seems that Bengal cats are definitely left-leaning!

 

References

Cole, J. (1955). Paw preference in cats related to hand preference in animals and men. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology48(2), 137.

Fabre-Thorpe, M., Fagot, J., Lorincz, E., Levesque, F., & Vauclair, J. (1993). Laterality in cats: paw preference and performance in a visuomotor activity. Cortex29(1), 15-24.

Pike, A. V. L., & Maitland, D. P. (1997). Paw preferences in cats (Felis silvestris catus) living in a household environment. Behavioural processes39(3), 241-247.

Tan, Ü., Yaprak, M., & Kutlu, N. (1990). Paw preference in cats: Distribution and sex differences. International Journal of Neuroscience50(3-4), 195-208.

Tan, Ü., Kara, I., & Kutlu, N. (1991). The effects of testosterone on paw preference in adult cats. International journal of neuroscience56(1-4), 187-191.

Wells, D. L., & Millsopp, S. (2009). Lateralized behaviour in the domestic cat, Felis silvestris catusAnimal Behaviour78(2), 537-541.

Wells, D. L., & McDowell, L. J. (2019). Laterality as a tool for assessing Breed differences in emotional reactivity in the domestic cat, Felis silvestris catusAnimals9(9), 647.

 

 

If you’ve ever worked in a shelter or veterinary setting, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve spent some time scruffing cats. Maybe you’ve taken your cat to the vet and the veterinary staff placed your cat in a “scruff-hold.” For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, scruffing is a way of restraining cats, by holding them firmly by the loose skin at the back of the neck. For some cats, this type of handling restricts their movement, which can facilitate handling and various procedures like getting a blood sample. Although scruffing is still a common way to handle cats in veterinary clinics, there is increasing resistance to using this type of handling.

Mother cat carrying kitten. Photo by Margo Akermark via Wikimedia Commons.

Scruffing likely came into fashion because it resembles the way that mother cats handle their kittens – carrying them by the back of their neck. When the momcat does this, kittens are immobilized and likely easier for mom to relocate. Immobility in other species (such as rabbits and rodents) when scruffed is attributed to anti-predator behavior. Scruffing adult cats can have similar effects (induced immobility), although not in all cats. Because the lack of movement experienced by cats during scruffing may be due to fear, rather than a relaxed state, many individuals and organizations are calling for veterinary staff to embrace other handling techniques for cats.

International Cat Care and the American Association of Feline Practitioners have released statements that scruffing should either not be performed, or should not be the routine, “default” method of handling cats who visit a vet clinic. Other organizations, such as the ASPCA, emphasize other methods of cat restraint. Various certifications are now available for training in low-stress handling, fear-free veterinary practice, and cat-friendly practices.

Now this is all well and good, but as can happen, sometimes people endorse a practice without a strong evidence base. Until the past few months, there have been few published studies related to cat restraint, and whether or not certain handling methods are truly stressful to cats. Dr. Carly Moody devoted her dissertation research to the exploration of various aspects of cat restraint. I blogged about two of her other studies recently, and now she’s got a new paper, hot off the presses, looking at three types of cat restraint.  In “Getting a grip: cats respond negatively to scruffing and clips” published in Veterinary Record, scruffing, clipping, and full-body restraint were compared with passive restraint to see whether they led to stress responses in cats.

Fifty-two shelter cats were tested; all cats experienced passive restraint as a control and ONE of the other forms of restraint. Some cats were held with passive restraint first, and others received the experimental condition first, to control for any order effects of being handled. Cats were first assessed as either friendly or unfriendly (I’d prefer a term like avoidant!) by measuring their approach and response to a stranger and being petted, before the restraint methods were tested.

Photo by Moody et al, from the published manuscript.

In passive restraint (a), cats were handled with minimal pressure and were allowed to stay in the position they preferred. Full-body restraint (b) involved holding the cat on its side, while holding the legs and not allowing much movement. In the scruff condition (c), cats were held by the skin at the back of the neck and was allowed only minimal movement. Finally, in the clip conditionm(d), two Clipnosis clips were applied to the back of the cat’s neck. Clipnosis clips resemble binder clips, and are a way to scruff “hands-free.” All cats were restrained by the same person in the animal shelter’s clinic facility.

The stress measures included ear movement, respiration rate, pupil dilation, lip licking and vocalizations. The results showed that cats undergoing full-body restraint had a higher respiration rate and more vocalizations. Full-body restraint and clips led to more pupil dilation, and all three tested restraint methods led to more ear movements when compared with passive restraint. To summarize, full-body restraint and clips were the most stressful, and scruffing also led to more stress responses when compared to passive restraint. Three indicators of stress (respiration rate, pupil dilation, and ear movements) were consistent with the previous work from this lab. Based on this study, the authors recommend that people do not use full-body or clip restraint, and that scruffing should not be a default method of handling cats.

A few potential weaknesses of the study include the fact that they did not do any medical procedures on the cats to see if there was any relationship between the type of restraint and cat’s behavior during an exam. The full-body restraint involved laying the cats on their side, which was different from the other three conditions, where the cat was typically upright. It is difficult to say whether it was the restraint or the body position that might have led to the stress response.

An example of scruffing plus full-body restraint.

Finally, MY personal experience, is that most handlers who scruff cats, simultaneously place them on their sides in some type of full-body restraint. So it is possible that some people will think that because scruffing was not as stressful as the other tested modes of restraint, that it’s perfectly fine to utilize this form of handling with nary a second thought. It would be great to include this type of handling (scruff + restraining the body) in a future study – it is possible that combining the two techniques is even more stressful than just using one alone.

Scruffing doesn’t prevent biting; many veterinarians have been bitten by cats in practice, and since most clinics (perhaps until recently) likely use scruffing to restrain cats, it is obviously therefore not a guarantee of safety. However, it is a habit that many may find hard to break, especially if they are used to and comfortable scruffing, and not as experienced or comfortable using other methods, such as towel-wrapping or chemical restraint (drugs). Many years ago, when I worked in an animal shelter and handling a lot of cats, I was doing a lot of scruffing! That was the norm. In my current work situation, I’m not routinely restraining cats anymore. But if I were back in that position, I’d be ready to try something different.

At the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, we teach a cat handling lab to first year students, and the mantra is “EBY – Even Better Yet” – what can we do better to handle animals safely, and in a manner that is likely to reduce stressful responses in the present and during future veterinary visits. These students have typically been trained to scruff cats by default. Sometimes they express resistance to trying something new; but hopefully with practice and increasing evidence that scruffing increases stress, they will get more comfortable with other, less-stressful techniques.

Kitty in a towel wrap. Photo by Kerri Lee Smith via Flickr/Creative Commons License https://www.flickr.com/photos/77654185@N07/26719456934

I was recently inspired when my friend Ellen Carozza, LVT told me that her veterinary practice has been “scruff-free” for almost 20 years. And she still has all of her fingers! She has been a strong advocate for providing cats with a safe and low-stress experience at the vet clinic, and has excellent videos of how the staff at her clinic handle “difficult” or “aggressive” cats, including several types of towel wraps. It’s hard to argue with 20 years of proof that it’s not necessary for effective treatment of cats (when we tell the first year vet students that there are scruff-free cat clinics, it blows their minds!). But think of it this way – if aversive restraint techniques were just not allowed or available to you – what would you do instead? And now it’s hard to argue with the mounting scientific evidence that when it comes to handling cats, “less is more.”

 

Reference

Moody, CM.Mason, GJ.Dewey, CE.Niel, L.
(2019) Getting a grip: cats respond negatively to scruffing and clips

A recent study, “Stable individual differences in vocalisation and motor activity during acute stress in the domestic cat,” from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City looked at whether or not adult cats were consistent in how much they vocalized and moved around in a repeated stressful situation. The stressful situation in question was being placed in a cat carrier three times (with one week between each testing session) to see how consistent each cat’s behavior was.


Photo by Hiroshi Shimizu

The behaviors in question were primarily the number of meows, but also how much movement each cat showed. Why meowing and activity? “Isolation calls” are commonly used to look at stress responses because animals tend to vocalize a lot when they are socially isolated. For example, kittens in a previous study by the same team at UNAM would meow and wiggle around a lot when separated from their mothers. The studies showed that the amount of meowing and activity was consistent within individuals across experimental sessions. What that means is that kittens who were more vocal and active compared to other kittens at one week of age were are also more vocal and active compared to other kittens at two and three weeks of age. From this the authors concluded that the responses to stress (vocalizing and being active) were stable behavioral responses that might reflect personality.

So that was in kittens who were very small (under a month old)...so what about adult cats? The study included 40 adult shelter cats, between 8 months and 11 years old. All of the cats were healthy, and had cat beds, toys, litter boxes, food, and water - all that good stuff - in the shelter. The researchers brought each cat into an unfamiliar testing room and then they placed the cat inside a standard cat carrier. They left the cat alone in the room in the carrier for 2 minutes. After 2 minutes they took the cat out of the carrier and put them back into their standard shelter housing. All of the trials were video recorded.

So what happened? First of all, there was an effect of age, such that older cats meowed less than younger cats.  Further analyses revealed that during the first trial the cats were more active while being confined in the carrier, but as trials continued, the cats moved less. Perhaps they habituated to being in the carrier across the three sessions. Motor activity was not a stable measure because the cats were generally not very consistent in how active they were between weeks.

The number of vocalizations did not vary statistically between trials -- there was consistency within an individual cat as to how much they meowed on each trial compared to other cats. Cats who meowed more in the carrier in week one were more likely to more the second and third times they were in a carrier. This is very similar to what the same researchers found regarding kittens!

There was no relationship between meowing and activity. Motor activity and vocalization may reflect two different aspects of responding to stress;  perhaps vocalizing is more related to fear or the separation, and activity may be more related to how an animal responds to a stressful situation -- do they have a more active or passive style?  Are they trying to get out or of the carrier, are they frustrated or maybe they are more fearful and trying to lay low for safety reasons?

The researchers concluded that activity is maybe not the most consistent way to measure stress but vocalisation seems to be a potentially repeatable marker of stress in non-human animals. This finding is similar to what has been revealed in cows, pigs, horses, kittens and now adult cats! Vocalizations are also often linked to negative emotional states. The researchers propose  that measuring vocalization may be an efficient way to measure the emotional state of animals, keeping in mind that in cats both the presence and absence of vocalization can be related to high levels of stress...so context is probably very important!!

The researchers propose that in the future looking at vocalizations in relationship to other stress responses (e.g., heart rate variability, stress hormones) could help determine whether or not vocalization is a good measure of being stressed out. Because meowing was consistent across the trials, how talkative a cat is in different situations may be one aspect of “stable individual differences” -- aka “purrsonality.”

References

Urrutia, A., Martínez-Byer, S., Szenczi, P., Hudson, R., & Bánszegi, O. (2019). Stable individual differences in vocalisation and motor activity during acute stress in the domestic cat. Behavioural Processes.
Hudson, R., Chacha, J., Bánszegi, O., Szenczi, P., & Rödel, H. G. (2017). Highly stable individual differences in the emission of separation calls during early development in the domestic cat. Developmental Psychobiology, 59(3), 367-374.

We are lucky to be in a time where more people are studying cat behavior.  But what are some of the best methods we should use to understand cats better?  A new study looks at whether not placing a camera on a cat directly is a good way to determine what the heck they’re getting up to.  Sometimes it’s difficult to observe cats at all times, or they may change their behavior when people are around, so a catcam would be handy way to observe cats in a remote way. 

One of the cats in the study.

The study, titled The Use of Animal-Borne Cameras to Video-track the Behavior of Domestic Cats started by placing small cameras on 21 pet cats with outdoor access.  The cameras weighed around 32 g which is well within the recommended weight guidelines for placing objects on animals to track their behavior.  Cats who seemed bothered by wearing the camera (5 cats) were removed from the study, leading 16 cats remaining in the study.  These cameras were able to generate video footage from the cat’s point of view. 

In order to determine if what was seen on the cat camera was a good way to determine what the cat was actually up to, the researchers also simultaneously filmed the cats during a significant portion of the study, so they could directly compare what they observed with what the catcam observed.

The authors observed 36 different behaviors including sleeping, walking, jumping, eating, hunting, digging…  and these behaviors were based on a previous study that provided a very detailed ethogram (a detailed catalog of all observed behaviors ) of what felines do.

After the researchers had generated all of this video footage, it needed to be coded and validated.  They tried a few different methods of quantifying what they observed: one was to code everything -- we call this continuous observation.  Then they also went through and checked the video every 10 seconds and noted what the cat was doing.  This “instantaneous” sampling of behavior could be a big time saver if effective.  Coding hours of video is a very labor-intensive endeavor, even though it provides a very thorough picture of what is happening.  So by comparing that continuous observation with the instantaneous observation, the authors could determine whether or not you can use a shortcut.  Finally, the authors wanted to know the minimum amount of footage that was needed to accurately represent what the cats were getting up to.

The results suggested that many behaviors could be determined from the catcam generated footage alone.  These included vocalizations, scratching an object, grooming, eating, and jumping.  However, some specific behaviors were difficult to distinguish based on the camera footage, such that a general category of behavior could be determined, but the specific behavior was a bit more challenging to identify, such as resting vs. lying down, or walking vs. trotting.

Some behaviors, like scratching, could be easily distinguished from catcam footage. Picture courtesy of Artyangel/Pixelbay:
https://pixabay.com/photos/cat-animal-scratching-2576794/

The ability to use instantaneous sampling as an accurate representation of behavior was highly dependent on the type of behavior as well as its frequency.  Common behaviors that are very brief in duration such as vocalizations or jumping were often missed.  Behaviors such as lying down or walking were easier to get accurate representation using the instantaneous sampling because they are more common and also tend to be longer in duration.  The authors also recommended that individual cats be observed at least 40 times to get an accurate sense of how they spend their time, keeping in mind that their sessions were a minimum of 8 minutes of observation (but the average length of their sessions was over an hour).

This study provides us with important guidelines for how we study cats, in this case these were cats with outdoor access.  A lot of times we just look at research results, without really diving deep into the methods.  Another nice thing is that the authors provide a lot of cool video footage from the study, and if you’re interested in how people study cats I recommend that you take a look.  Unfortunately, it seems like taking shortcuts when it comes to observing cat behavior may come at a price.  But depending on your research question, there may be times where it’s equally effective.  Cameras that are worn by animals are just one of many cool new ways to use technology to better understand cat behavior!

Huck, M., & Watson, S. (2019). The use of animal-borne cameras to video-track the behaviour of domestic cats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.


I was fortunate enough to get to interview my former lab mate, dog expert and all around awesome person, Amy Cook. She received her PhD from UC Berkeley studying dog cognition and the relationship between dogs and their humans. You can read my profile of her and her research here, at the Berkeley Science Review.

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ALL DOGS! What the...?

Paedomorphic Facial Expressions Give Dogs a Selective Advantage

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It's no big surprise that we prefer animals with baby-like features: that is what CUTE is all about! Konrad Lorenz called it "baby schema" (Kindchenschema). This study used adoption from a shelter as a proxy for active selection (hmmm...does preference equal evolution?) and looked at how often dogs "raised their eyebrows", which the authors claimed made the dogs look more "paedomorphic" (juvenile).  Two dogs were removed from the study because they took too long to get adopted (another hmmm...), and the results suggested that adoption rates for the remaining 27 dogs was related to how often they raised their eyebrows; more eyebrow raises = faster adoption. Read it for yourself here, yay OPEN ACCESS!

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It's Friday again already? Here's what I liked this week!

5000 years of love: Cats became domesticated earlier than we thought

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We know humans and cats hung out together at least 9500 years ago. And we have evidence of domesticated cats dating 4000 years ago. We didn't know much about what happened between these two time periods until now. Scientists have found evidence for co-existence (cats living on human food) and possible domestication in China 5000 years ago.  Read more here or here

Social learning in chimps

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A study in Zambia found differences between chimp colonies in how they open hard-shelled fruits, demonstrating support for both social learning and culture. If you can, read the source article, or try this article (Some articles had absurd statements, like, "further strengthens the fact that chimps are our closest relatives!" - uh, no that's proven by genetics...).

Dogs recognize familiar faces from images

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This study looked at both research dogs and pet dogs in Helsinki, presenting them with images (both upright and inverted) of humans and dogs (familiar and strangers), then used eye-tracking technology to measure where they looked and for how long. Dogs like to look at pictures of other dogs, and they look longer of images of both familiar dogs and humans, and they particularly spend more time looking in the eye area. Original article here, news write up here.

 

 

 

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How do our cats recognize us (if they do!)? Most likely, they use multiple cues – our appearance, our scent, our mannerisms, and likely, our voices. Some scientists recently examined whether cats can recognize us by one cue alone – the sound of our voices calling their names (Saito & Shinozuka, 2013).

While this study came out in July of 2013, it was recently picked up by Reddit, and so it’s back in the headlines!!! The study has generated A LOT of attention, and some misleading (or just ridiculous) headlines, such as:

Note that most of these headlines play into the stereotype of cats as aloof, independent and well, just jerky (something I think most cat owners would argue is not exactly…errr…accurate). And then one headline actually has the opposite interpretation – cats aren’t that aloof after all! So what exactly did the researchers do and find? Do you agree with their conclusions? Or those of the media? ...continue reading