Tag Archives: cats

A new study explores whether and how mom cats might recognize their offspring.

You’ve probably seen dozens of “mom cat foster” stories on the internet – where mom cats are given a baby animal (sometimes of another species) to care for.  It’s not uncommon for rescue groups, upon receipt of an orphaned kitten, just latch them on to a cat who is already nursing a littler. Much like Paul McCartney, these mom cats often just say “Let ‘em in.”

Cat nurses a puppy

Cat nurses a baby squirrel

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Cat nurses a baby skunk:

A cat nurses ducklings?????

From an evolutionary perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for animals to invest time and energy care for unrelated young – it could increase risk of predation when moms have to spend more time searching for food for that new mouth to feed. It could even mean less success for an animal’s own babies. Adoption (and its dangers) sometimes unintentionally happens in nature – most commonly via what is called “brood parasitism” where a bird lays an egg in another bird’s nest.  In the case of the Cuckoo, they lay eggs in Reed Warblers’ nests, and once they hatch, the young cuckoos wiggle around so much that they push their adoptive mom’s eggs out of the nest.

So why would cats be so willing to take on extra, unrelated babies? A new study looked at whether mom cats were discriminating in their care of kittens, depending on if they were her own or from another litter (referred to as “aliens”). The recent publication, “Can but don’t: olfactory discrimination between own and alien offspring in the domestic cat,” published in the journal Animal Cognition, also looked at whether or not mom cats could tell the difference between her own and alien offspring by just using their sense of smell.

Photo from Animal Cognition/ Bánszegi, Jacinto, Urrutia, Szenczi, & Hudson

In Experiment 1, twelve recent mothers were presented with an array of kittens in little dishes (to prevent them from rolling around). The kittens were <7 days old. Two of the kittens were the mother’s offspring, and two were alien. The experimenters recorded how long it took for the mom to investigate each kitten, and if she retrieved them and carried them back to the nest. Moms showed no differences in behavior toward their own and alien kittens, aside from spending more time sniffing alien kittens. Seven of the mom cats retrieved all 4 kittens, two brought back two kittens (one of their own and one alien kitten in both cases) and the other three mom cats did not return any kittens to her nest.

So now we have a new question – did moms bring back alien kittens because they could not discriminate between which kittens were theirs and which were alien, or did they just not care?

Photo from Animal Cognition/ Bánszegi, Jacinto, Urrutia, Szenczi, & Hudson

To test this, Experiment 2 involved presenting the mom cat with a kitten wrapped in a small towel, with only the anogenital region (hereafter referred to as “kitten booty”) available for sniffing. The mom was presented with three of her own kitten’s booties, then the booty of an alien kitten. Sniffing time was noted for each presentation. Mom cats habituated to the smell of their own kittens, sniffing each booty a decreasing amount of time. But the presentation of the alien kitten booty led to a significant increase in sniffing time, suggesting that the mom cat could detect that something was different about this fourth booty.

To be sure that this discrimination wasn’t due to some other factors, such as visual recognition of the kitten booty or the possibility that the kittens were emitting ultrasonic vocalizations, a third experiment was conducted where the moms were presented with four Q-tips instead of four booties.

Photo from Animal Cognition/ Bánszegi, Jacinto, Urrutia, Szenczi, & Hudson

The first three Q-tips had each been rubbed on three of the mom’s own kittens, and the fourth Q-tip was rubbed on an alien kitten. The swabs were rubbed all over the kitten, including their faces, stomach, and anogenital region. Shortly afterward, the Q-tips were presented to the mom cat in a similar manner as the booties had been. Again, the mom showed habituation to the smell of her own babies, and spent more time sniffing the alien kitten Q-tip.

Combined, these studies demonstrate that mom cats can distinguish differences between kittens who are their biological offspring, and kittens who aren’t. Moms seem less discriminating when it comes to rescuing kittens who are separated from their nest. So why would that be?

Although I really enjoyed this paper, the one thing that bothered me was the continual reference to cats as “solitary.” A more modern understand of cat sociality clearly demonstrates that group living, and matrilineal societies are not unusual in environments where resources are adequate.

Cat colonies tend to be matrilineal. Photo by Linda Tanner via Creative Commons License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/goingslo/6130901498

 

In these cases, if mom cats are highly likely to be near closely related female cats, then the costs of co-mothering (from an evolutionary/fitness perspective, where the goal is to ensure your genes are passed on) are small. In fact, if this behavior is reciprocal, then your own offspring would have a greater chance of surviving if another mom cat (probably one of your relatives) was willing to care for YOUR kittens.

Moms have litters that on average have 3-5 kittens. But they can have eight (or apparently, sometimes even more) nipples. Although each nursing baby would come with additional nutritional costs for mom, she can accommodate more kittens than she usually gives birth to.

Thus, it should not be surprising that mom cats would be willing to nurse other animals - they have nipples to spare, and under many conditions, even if they did pick up some nearby kittens, there would be a good chance that those kittens would be related, thus taking care of those kittens may not present a lot of costs for your average mom cat.

 

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Pica, or the ingestion of non-food items, is found in species as varied as parrots, humans, and domestic cats. It’s unclear why some animals eat things that aren’t food – some guesses include stress and nutritional deficiencies. This behavior in cats was first noticed in Siamese cats, who are prone to sucking and eating woolen items. However, once all breeds (including the domestic shorthair) were included in studies, it became apparent that this behavior isn’t limited to the meezers in any way.

A new study, Characterization of pica and chewing behaviors in privately owned cats: a case control study, sought to better understand factors that might predict pica in cats, in the hopes of helping the veterinary community in developing effective treatments. This study surveyed 91 pet owners with cats who ingested non-foods, and included a control group of 35 cats who did not.

The researchers asked questions about basic kitty demographics, including age, breed, sex, medical history. They also included questions about the environment (including types of enrichment available, other people and animals in the house, and access to the outdoors). Finally, they asked questions about potential gastrointestinal signs, such as vomiting and diarrhea.

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Some cats are attracted to eating strings and shoelaces. Photo "Cat on a strong" by Stefan Tell via Creative Commons/https://www.flickr.com/photos/stefantell/354864230

All cats in the pica group ingested non-food items, with 79 of them also chewing (but not swallowing) other things on a regular basis. Twenty one out of thirty-five of the control cats (that’s 60%) also chewed on things that aren’t really chewables!

What do cats with pica like to “eat?” Perhaps not surprisingly, shoelaces, plastic, and fabrics were all in the top three. Other interesting choices included toilet paper, soap, ear plugs, kitty litter, and sponges. Plastic, paper, rubber, and wood were the chew-toys of choice for the cats who were chewing on items.

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If you want to learn a lot about yourself, try training another animal. 

I'm revisiting this post in honor of the #Train4Rewards blog party, brought to you by Companion Animal Psychology, a fine fine blog from Zazie Todd! I wrote this post over two years ago about training my cat...well, I'll let you just read it! (Not to spoil the ending, but we were eventually successful in the training!)

Thank you Zazie for the blog party!

 

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I’ve skated through life without having to do a lot of animal training --- even as someone who studies animals! I grew up with untrained cats; the research lab I worked in as an undergraduate used key-pecking in pigeons to study their behavior (something pigeons basically learn on their own through a process called autoshaping); I currently study food-storing in squirrels --- something they are experts at. I like studying what animals do naturally --- and now I think I know why.

Pigeons being autoshaped to peck a key in an operant chamber.

bloghifiveI have trained my cats to do cute parlor tricks – high-five, sit, and the like. But, most of the important stuff that my cats know, they have figured out on their own, such as using the litterbox (no help from me), and using their scratching post (encouraged with positive reinforcement). But I’ll be honest, I don’t really LOVE training. I enjoy the parlor tricks, and I think my cats do too, but that’s a low stakes situation. Now I would like to train one of my cats to perform a new behavior – to go through a cat door into a magical box that will prevent my other cat from eating all of her food (more on the Meowspace in a future blog!).

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Does your dog love you?

We spend a lot of time worrying about whether our pets love us. How would you even prove it? @DogSpies' Julie Hecht contemplates the question, and encourages just living with the answer "probably."

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Fat cats won't stop loving YOU if you put them on a diet

fatcatIf your cat is obese, that is a problem! Pet owners who worry that putting their feline on a diet might turn them into grumpy cat should worry no more. A study found that reducing an overweight cat's calories made them MORE affectionate toward owners. Remember: putting your cat on a diet should be done in concert with your veterinarian.

 

 

Cats are part of the family

A new survey of cat welfare in Australia found that most owners consider their cat part of the family, and feel confident in their ability to provide for their cat. However, most cats have not been to the vet for a yearly check-up and other findings suggested that owners are not meeting all of their cat's welfare needs. Nice summary from Zazie Todd on her blog Companion Animal Psychology here!

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Exploring empathy in animals

oxyA nice little review of new study about voles exhibiting empathic behaviors toward one another. It features a squirrel studying alum from my lab, Stephanie Preston! I would add that some of the willingness to look at empathic behaviors in other animals is not neccessarily due to a shift away from abhorring anthropomorphism, but a shift away from anthropocentrism!

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Highlighting Misleading Headlines

Humans seem want to know two things about their pets: WHAT ARE THEY THINKING? and DOES (S)HE UNDERSTAND ME? This desperation leads to endless click-bait about what exactly is going on in our fuzzy friends' minds.

What is my cat thinking?

A new device (that has no peer-reviewed testing that I can find) - basically a fancy collar that measures activity - claims to tell you if your cat is playful (OK, that I believe), or happy or annoyed.  The collar will measure heart rate and temperature (how accurately?), but consumers should know that we have no accepted measures of "happiness" or "annoyance" in pets. I feel pretty confident in saying this collar cannot tell you what your cat is thinking. BUYER BEWARE!

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Yet another klepto-kitty

Are cats becoming more likely to steal or is the internet just making us more aware of these thieving felines?  Yet another cat wandering the neighborhood and bringing goodies back home, such as undies and even a bag of weed. This kitty seems to have a preference for My Little Pony. Some cat experts have weighed in on this behavior before.  Read veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman's take here.

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Bird feeders spread avian "pink eye"

birddiseaseAs sad as this makes me to say, there is yet more evidence that bird feeders can do more harm than good (aside from attracting more squirrels than birds). A new study showed that birds who prefer feeders over foraging are major players in the spread of disease to other birds in their flock. If you feed birds, clean and disinfect your feeder every time you fill it please!!

 

 

 

What kind of movies do chimps want to see?

My undergrad advisor, who worked with Kanzi the chimp, told me that the chimps he worked with loved to watch football games and videos of chimps fighting. A new study, using non-invasive eye tracking, looked at what chimps look at when watching a video of humans, including one wearing a gorilla suit. By changing some features of the video on second viewing, the scientists could see what the chimps remembered, and what they expected to see.

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Are cats hard to understand?

grumpyNot if you try to understand how they communicate! Scientists agree: cats communicate with purring, meowing, and body language. Yours truly briefly quoted within, along with some of my cat-scientist heroes, John Bradshaw and Sharon Crowell-Davis.

 

 

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Many cats spend time in shelters or in a boarding facility during their lifetime. The welfare of these cats is an issue of major concern – how can we make this experience less stressful? Stress can make cats appear less adoptable, or make them susceptible to disease, so reducing potential stressors is an important welfare question.

A new study, “The effects of social interaction and environmental enrichment on the space use, behaviour and stress of owned housecats facing a novel environment” brought to us from La Trobe University in Australia, took a stab at looking at what factors could potentially reduce stress on cats who find themselves in unfamiliar turf. The study looked at the effect of different types of resting areas, and human interaction on the cats’ stress levels and behavior. The researchers also included information about the cat: their age, sex, temperament factors, and previous experience with boarding.

Let’s start with the cats – twenty owned cats who were each assessed in the home via the Feline Temperament Profile, which measures how cats respond to a stranger on behaviors such as making eye contact, approaching the stranger, biting or scratching when handled, reaction to an unexpected noise, and willingness to interact with a toy. This gives cats one FTP score, which rates cats on friendliness, playfulness, aggressiveness, and fear. Most of the cats in the study lived in multi-cat homes, twelve were indoor-outdoor, and seven cats had previous experience being boarded in a cattery.

char12The cats were housed for two days in a room at the university, which was set up with litter box, food and water, and three enrichment options: an igloo bed, an open basket with the owner’s scent added (via used pillowcase), and a cat tree. Cats were randomly assigned to one of two groups – one group received one 20-minute visit from a human per day, and the other group received three 20-minute visits. These visits included talking in a gentle voice, as well petting, playing and grooming if the cat allowed.

Several variables were recorded: each cat was given a Cat Stress Score twice a day (the CSS uses body language and activity levels to determine a cat’s stress levels); in addition, measures of “stress hormones” in the cats’ feces were taken before, during, and after the study. The proportion of time the cat spent in the enrichment options was measured, as well as time spent engaged in different behaviors (such as grooming, playing, and eating).

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Cats with higher stress scores spent more time in igloo-style cat beds. Photo by hehaden via Flickr/Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/hellie55/6754221353/

There were many variables and analyses and results, so I’ll try to focus on a few key findings. There were some individual differences when it came to enrichment use, and it seemed like it took most of the cats a day to adjust and show preferences. On the second day, cats with a higher stress score spent more time in the igloo bed; these cats were also less likely to explore, and in fact performed fewer total behaviors than less stressed cats.

Human interaction seemed to have a positive effect on stress – cats who received three visits a day had lower stress scores on day two. This suggests that human interaction for owned cats kept in confinement cat be a positive experience for them. Older cats, and cats with no previous experience being boarded also had higher stress scores.

Most cats did not sit in the open basket with their owner’s scent; this may have been because the basket was open, and not elevated, and thus was quite different in the safety it offered compared to the igloo and the cat tree. Thus, we can’t conclude that cats do NOT find owner scent comforting – further study is needed.

Do we need to revisit how we measure feline temperament? Photo by Dilara Goksel Parry.
Do we need to revisit how we measure feline temperament? Photo by Dilara Goksel Parry.

Interestingly, the Feline Temperament Profile did not predict any behaviors or stress scores. This suggests that we might need to revisit how we measure cat personality – as some shelter temperament tests are based on the FTP, and make assumptions that behaviors in one environment should predict behaviors in another. This is not the first time that the FTP has failed to correlate with other behavioral or physiological measures, although other studies have shown some consistency over time. It is possible that a longer stay in the facility in the current study would have revealed different results and more effects of the FTP.

This study did provide several tidbits of useful information that can be applied to housing cats in a shelter or cattery. Older cats may need more help adjusting to new environments; positive interactions with humans are helpful, and multiple interactions per day may be best; cats should be offered both an elevated safe place and a secure, enclosed bed to ensure meeting the needs of cats and their different tendencies to adjust to new spaces. Cats may need a day to decide which enrichment(s) they prefer, and because many cats utilized multiple enrichment items, choices may help them get comfortable. Finally, further research is needed to determine whether owner scent is helpful or calming to cats.