Cats and Squirrels here, reporting from sunny Melbourne, Florida at the Comparative Cognition Conference (CO3). But that is a story for another day! I spent last weekend in Atlanta doing so many cat-related things that I almost started purring on several occasions.
The IAABC Feline Behavior Conference (okay, it was just domestic cats) happened Saturday and Sunday (that's April 11/12) at some hotel in Atlanta. It was possibly the largest gathering ever of people who work professionally with cats (outside of veterinary conferences), including many cat behavior consultants, shelter workers, veterinarians, and pet sitters.
Things kicked off with a pep talk from Steve Dale on the current status of the cat in our homes, including some things (such as the Catalyst Council and the promotion of Cat Friendly veterinary practices) being done to improve the welfare of the cat.
Then we heard from Dr. Sharon Crowell-Davis on the social organization of the domestic cat. Contrary to popular belief, cats are not "asocial" - although their social structure is complex and not completely understood. Dr. Crowell-Davis shared a lot of information about matriarchal structures in cat societies and how cats form preferred associations. She encourages people to adopt related kittens together (why not a whole litter?) and basically put it out there - we are depriving cats of learning to be socially competent adults by raising kittens in isolation!! This talk was followed by an excellent overview of feline aggression and ways to work with it. YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE!
Next up was the fabulous veterinary behaviorist Lynne Siebert, who presented on some complex feline overgrooming cases, including the difficulties of getting owner compliance. A lot of info on OCD and how it manifests as compulsion in companion animals, and more importantly, how to improve it. She also gave a great talk on how aging impacts the behavior and physiology of companion animals. There was great information on screening cats for cognitive dysfunction and on what the current treatment options are, including case studies. Fascinating stuff, YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE!!!
The first day's talks concluded with Sharon Crowell-Davis speaking about psychopharmacology, including how behavior consultants should build relationships and work with veterinarians, and some of the ethics behind the use and recommendation of psychoactive meds (basically, if you aren't a vet, you shouldn't be). She gave a great overview of some of the most commonly prescribed medications and how and why they are used for feline behavior problems.
But that wasn't all. The end of the day featured a roundtable of cat behavior experts, including Leticia Dantas, Sharon Crowell-Davis, Ingrid Johnson of Fundamentally Feline, Jacqueline Munera of Positive Cattitudes, and ME! We were there to answer questions from the audience on intercat aggression, although it quickly turned into a free for all Q&A - cat people have a lot to say! YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE!
Sunday kicked off with a talk from Jacqueline Munera on recognizing problems in households with cats and dogs and how to help to help our two favorite companion animals be buds. NYC Certified Cat Behavior Consultant Beth Adelman discussed how to use negative reinforcement to work with fearful cats (sometimes the only reward for them is when the human backs away!) . This technique is often described for use in dogs, but we rarely hear about how to use negative reinforcement for cats, so this was a nice case study.
Dr. Leticia Dantas, a veterinary behaviorist all cat lovers will know about someday, was up next. I LOVE THIS WOMAN! Her first talk was on working with fearful and aggressive cats and covered so many important topics - from carrier desensitization, to using safe restraint to examine cats in the veterinary office. She is taking Fear Free Veterinary Visits to a new level, including conditioning your cat to their "exam blanket," and how we don't need to elicit aggression to "see" what a cat will do (THANK YOU LETICIA!).
I was really excited to hear Dr. Tony Buffington speak. His expertise is in feline nutrition and idiopathic cystitis, a chronic, highly common problem that can lead to housesoiling and other problems for cats. His first talk was on nutrition and behavior and dispelled some of the myths about what cats need to eat (and what cats like to eat). Will carbs kill your cat? No. They like a small amount (and think about it...cats eat mice...mice eat grains...). Buffington discussed the current hype over pet foods, stating that "the emphasis on ingredients is inversely correlated to knowledge of nutrition." He also addressed finicky eating, how to offer new food to cats, and brought it all home with how stress impacts food intake and health.
His next talk focused more on cystitis, including some great detail on the physiology behind it, including the sympathetic nervous system, how stress causes inflammation in the body, and the impact of development. He talked a tad bit about his amazing Indoor Pet Initiative and how it can be used as a tool for use with clients.
After that, it was...MOI on stage to talk about how cats are not small dogs, and how cat owners are not just small (or big) dog owners. I included some of my research on the different attachments pet owners have with their pets based on personality variables and whether their pet is a cat or a dog (or other), and wrapped up with some tips on working with difficult clients, because cat people tend to ...um...score high on measures of neuroticism.
The conference ended with another talk from Leticia Dantas, focusing on reducing stress in shelter cats, with many fantastic examples of low cost ways that shelters can improve conditions for cats. She really reviewed all the latest and relevant shelter and welfare science, including environmental enrichment, socializing, and preparing cats for their future home. YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE!
That was the end of an amazing weekend. It was great to meet and hang out with so many folks who are so passionate about cats, meet other behavior professionals, and present my own research to a feline audience (besides my cats, who often have to hear me practice my talks multiple times). I'm proud to have taken a part in curating and organizing this conference in its early stages with Ingrid Johnson and Marjie Alonso, Executive Director of the IAABC.
But that wasn't the end of my cat adventures. I stayed in Atlanta for a few extra days, crashing at Ingrid's house. On Monday, I got to report to work at Paws, Whiskers & Claws - one of Atlanta's few cat-only veterinary hospitals, where Ingrid works with Dr. Stephanie Globerman. My duties included cleaning litterboxes and floors, playing with the two resident cats, doing the laundry, and washing dishes.
But I did get to observe a cat dental with extractions, watch an agitated Persian get shaved, and learn how to analyze urine (is it sad that the urinalysis was very exciting to me? I even got to see calcium oxalate crystals under the microscope!).
After that, Ingrid, Dr. Globerman, and I drove through monsoon-like weather to Athens, GA. We were there (along with Dr. Dantas) for a screening of the Paw Project documentary, a film that highlights the work of Dr. Jennifer Conrad, DVM, to put an end to the HORRIFYING practice of declawing, the amputation of a cat's toes, often done to "prevent" problems such as furniture scratching. This was part of UGA's "Speak out for Species" series, run by a student group that seeks to promote animal welfare. We answered questions after the film about how to train a cat to use a scratching post, how to educate people (including future veterinarians of the world) on why declawing is so problematic, and what the long-term repercussions of this procedure (which is illegal in many countries and now some US cities) are for cats. I highly recommend you watch the film if you have cats or know anyone who has a cat!!! You can watch it for free on Netflix (if you have Netflix) or other online sources, or donate to the Paw Project to get a copy. Or even host a screening in your town to spread the word!
The only thing that could make this whole trip better would be staying with another feline-obsessed cat behavior consultant (whose husband is an amazing vegetarian chef? Yes.). There was no shortage of kitties to cuddle with at Ingrid's house (she also has one giant dog).
And it turns out "Catlanta" is a thing! A local artist, Catlanta, does feline graffiti, and has had scavenger hunts for magnets and other objects featuring his adorable cat motif.
The Bay Area is gonna have to step up its game after this trip.
Next blog post (hopefully)...Comparative Cognition Society Conference Report!