companion animal research

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