Tag Archives: cat welfare

Furniture scratching by cats is one of those things that falls into the category of “normal feline behavior that bothers humans.” Scratching is an essential feel-good behavior for cats that allows them to stretch their back muscles and mark their territory (both visually and through the scent glands in the paws). Cats often scratch human furniture such as couches, chairs, stereo speakers, hampers or carpets because they aren’t provided with other scratching outlets, or when what they are provided with does not fit their needs.

A critical way to stop cats from scratching the furniture is to give them something to scratch that they like. Through three experiments, a new publication sought to assess the scratching preferences of housecats, and also looked at whether adding an olfactory supplement would increase scratching of objects. The manuscript, “Scratcher preferences of adult in-home cats and effects of olfactory supplements on cat scratching” was recently published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

A total of 36 housecats participated in the study, from the comfort of their own homes. In each experiment, cats were presented with choices for scratching, and preferences were assessed by measuring the amount of time, and the frequency of visits the cat made to each, over the course of a week. A video camera was set up to record feline visits to the scratching posts. 

In the first experiment, cats were simultaneously presented with a standing cardboard scratcher and a cardboard scratcher pad to see if they preferred vertical or horizontal scratching.

 

In Experiment 2, cats were given the choice of four vertical scratchers, each of which was covered with a different texture (cardboard, sofa fabric, carpet, and rope).

 

Finally, the third study gave the cats the choice of two vertical cardboard scratching posts, one of which had an added olfactory stimulus (either catnip, silver vine, or the product Feliscratch provided in a sock), and the other that had a matching control stimulus (an unscented sock).

So what did the cats like? In Experiment 1, results suggested that the cats showed a stronger preference for the vertical, standing scratcher over the S-shaped cardboard pad. The cats in Experiment 2 spent more time scratching and paid more visits to the cardboard and rope compared to the sofa fabric. The response to the carpet was more middle-of-the-road “meh.”

In Experiment 3, the catnip and silver vine were both successful in increasing scratching interactions, compared to the unscented sock. There was no such effect of the Feliscratch treatment, which resulted in similar levels of scratching as the unscented sock.

Now, it’s worth noting, in case you were wondering, that Feliscratch is produced by the same company that brought us Feliway. It’s advertised as “a simple answer to cat’s inappropriate scratching in the home.” I’ve shared my opinions on Feliway before, and based on the comments, it’s definitely both the most popular and most hated blog post I’ve ever written (note: if you submit a comment that is rude or insults me, I will not post it).

Getting ready to apply the Feliscratch.

I obtained a free sample of Feliscratch a few years ago, and tried it out with my own cats. It stained my scratching post, as promised, which I wasn’t super-thrilled about. To boot, my cats didn’t just NOT scratch more, they actively avoided the scratch post I placed the Feliscratch on for several weeks. So, once again, in my experience Feliway promises more than it generally delivers, and this study adds more doubt (at least in my mind) about its efficacy.

After Feliscratch application. No cats are interested.

On the other hand – a quick, cheap and positive way to enhance your scratching posts is to add a little ‘nip or silver vine to them!

Although not an airtight study, these experiments point to the importance of offering choices for your cat when it comes to scratching opportunities. We can use cats’ OVERALL preferences to guide what we provide for our cats, while understanding that each individual cat may have their own preferences. And how do you know you’ve picked the right scratching post? When your cat uses it and not the couch!

BONUS: My general tips on preventing furniture scratching:

  • Find out the texture(s) your cat likes best! Offering choices, just like in this study, is a great way to figure out what your cat likes…and they might like multiple textures or angles!
  • Provide your cat something tall and sturdy to scratch (AT LEAST 3’ high). Small, kitten-sized scratchers are not tall enough, and scratch pads that hang on a doorknob are too wobbly to be comfortable.
  • Provide multiple scratchers in different locations of your home.
  • Location matters: Don’t hide the scratchers in the back corner of your office or in the basement. Scratch posts should be placed in prominent locations, including near where your cat likes to eat, sleep and greet you.
  • You can lure your cat to explore the post with toys or catnip/silver vine, but DO NOT carry your cat to the post and move their paws on it. This is an aversive experience for most cats that will steer them AWAY, not toward the post.
  • Praise your cat and dole out treats for scratching post use. Positive reinforcement works!

Reference:

Zhang, L., & McGlone, J. J. (2020). Scratcher preferences of adult in-home cats and effects of olfactory supplements on cat scratching. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 104997.

About three years ago, a NY Times article drew attention to a problem plaguing cats around the world – a condition called “whisker stress” or “whisker fatigue.” Whisker stress is described as an unpleasant sensation caused when a cat’s whiskers touch the side of the bowl as they eat or drink. In the NY Times article, whisker fatigue was posited as a veterinary diagnosis (an exaggeration) that answered outstanding questions about some of cats’ strange eating behaviors – from finicky eating to pushing food out of the bowl and eating it off the floor. Cats’ whiskers ARE incredibly sensitive, and at their base, they are attached to specialized receptors that detect movement. Whiskers allow cats to detect air movement, objects nearby and navigate through narrow spaces. But apparently all that sensitivity can be too much of a good thing.

The solution to whisker stress? Cat’s gotta eat – and sure enough, there are over a dozen “whisker friendly” bowls or dishes that come up from a quick search on a well-known online retailer’s website. The NY Times article featured interviews with several manufacturers of these whisker friendly products, leading Boston Magazine to question whether or not NY Times was risking their journalistic integrity in reporting on this little-known feline epidemic.

 

The question that emerges from this controversy is whether or not whisker stress is real, or just a made up marketing ploy to sell everyone new food dishes for their cats. Finally, science comes to the rescue! Recently a new manuscript, “Evaluation of whisker stress in cats” was published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, to answer that very question. The study, based out of the School of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University, tested 38 housecats in order to find out if there is evidence that whisker stress is real.

To do this, researchers first got some data about each participating kitty. They measured each cat’s whiskers (both on their eyebrows and muzzles) and measured the diameter and depth of each cat’s usual food dish. At home, owners got their cats hungry by withholding food for 12 hours. They then offered their cat a set amount of dry food in their regular food dish, and filmed their cat’s eating behavior for five minutes. For the next week, they fed their cat from a whisker-friendly (WF) dish, then they again withheld food for 12 hours, and filming their cat eating from the WF dish for five minutes. The researchers also matched the WF dish to the material of the cat’s usual food dish (ceramic or stainless steel).

Photo from Slovak, J. E., & Foster, T. E. (2020). Evaluation of whisker stress in cats. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 1098612X20930190.

The final step happened the next day; the owner offered the cat food from their usual dish AND the WF dish side by side to see if their cat had a preference. The variables that were measured to assess whether cats experienced whisker stress included the amount of food eaten from each dish, whether the cat dropped food while eating from either dish, how much time they spent during the five minute period eating, and on the final step, which food dish the cat chose to eat from first.

So is whisker stress a thing? Well, researchers found no differences between cats’ eating behavior at their normal food bowl or when eating from the WF dish. They ate on average about the same amount of food, they dropped around the same amount of food (and if anything, they dropped more food when eating from the WF dish than their usual dish – 14 kibbles on average versus 1; this may be because the shallow dish means that the dry food got pushed ‘over the edge’). They also spent the same amount of time during the five-minute period eating at both their usual dish and the whisker-friendly one.

The only inkling that cats might dig the whisker-friendly option was from the result of the preference trial, where 63% of kitties first approached the WF dish. Now the preference trial itself was a “one shot” deal, and it is possible that the cats just chose whichever dish was placed closer to them. Ideally, the cats would have been given multiple trials to assess if the preference would be consistent across several trials. They would have also randomized the location of the dishes (left or right side) as many cats show a “side bias” when tested by stimuli that are offered side-by-side. It is also possible that the cats preferred the WF bowl for reasons other than the fact that their whiskers didn’t touch the side of the bowl; for example, a higher-sided whisker UNFRIENDLY dish may block a cat’s ability to see anyone approaching while they eat.

To sum up, this study did not provide STRONG evidence for whisker stress, as there could be alternative explanations for the only finding that supported a preference in some cats for the WF bowls. Do you need to throw away your whisker-friendly bowl? Or perhaps you’re wondering if you should be a late adopter and go whisker-friendly?

When it comes to our cats, I’m a big fan of choice. If you want to see if your cat would like a WF bowl, you could try one out and see what your cat prefers. If you’re cheap like me, you could feed your cat their food on a saucer (very cheap from thrift stores) and see if they like that before investing in a bowl that will set you back 15-25 bucks. And yes, it is reasonable to think that cats’ whiskers are sensitive – we know they are. But they are sensitive in the place your hair is – at the base. If you cut your hair, you don’t feel it in the same way as you do when your hair is being pulled! And would cats have survived this long as companion animals if they couldn’t eat or drink from a bowl without suffering?

Reference

Slovak, J. E., & Foster, T. E. (2020). Evaluation of whisker stress in cats. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 1098612X20930190.

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

If there’s a veterinary “procedure” that tends to gets people all wiggly, it might be the declawing of domestic cats. Declawing is the amputation of a cat’s toes (with scalpel, laser, or even with claw clippers), usually performed to prevent furniture scratching.

“It saves lives,” “it keeps cats out of shelters,” “banning medical procedures is a slippery slope…” we’ve heard it all. Those of us who work professionally with cats have also seen repercussions – the declawed cats surrendered to shelters with behavior issues, the cats who have been hobbled with arthritis from years of walking unnaturally, cats who can no longer engage in natural behaviors like scratching and stretching.

People get up in arms easily over tail and ear docking of dogs, but it feels like declawing is still treated like a fringe issue. I’ll be upfront with you. I don’t think declawing is necessary EVER, I don’t think it’s a humane choice, and honestly, I feel like if you can’t live with a cat with their claws, you shouldn’t have a cat as a companion animal. So now that I’ve gotten that out of the way – let’s talk about some new research that provides strong evidence for the negative effects of declawing.

In a study just released in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, “Pain and adverse behavior in declawed cats,” researchers studied 137 declawed cats, with a control group of 137 paw-intact cats matched for age. Each cat was given a physical exam, including a common test for back pain, by palpating areas of the spine and noting reactions. As cats are digitigrade, or walk on their toes, removing their toes changes their posture, which is hypothesized to cause long-term physical effects, including the risk of arthritis.

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