I was super excited to get to spend some time talking cats with the super-cool Alie Ward, and the results of our conversation are available for you to listen to over at the Ologies podcast!
Last month I also had the honor of speaking to a sold out crowd at the San Diego Natural History Museum about "The Science of a Happy Cat." Missed it? Don't despair, I'll be giving the talk (with a few minor tweaks here and there) at Cat Camp in NYC this June. Tickets for Cat Camp are on sale now!
What occupies my time these days (and prevents me from writing more blog posts!) is my work at UC Davis, where I'm a postdoctoral researcher. I'm working on a few projects, including the best ways to care for delicate neonatal kittens. KQED's Deep Look did an amazing up close video (what's cuter than kittens up close??) including a shout out to our project. Check it out!
Speaking of kittens, we're holding a one-day KITTEN CONFERENCE at UC Davis on Saturday, April 27th. I'll be discussing some of our kitten-related research, but the conference will feature many amazing speakers, such as Hannah Shaw (the "Kitten Lady") and LVT Ellen Carozza. Registration is OPEN!! For those of you who can't attend, a webinar option is available!!
And while we are on the topic of research, Dr. Tony Buffington and I are also JUST LAUNCHING a new survey-based study. If you are 18 years of age or older and your cat is between 1 and 10 years of age, please consider filling out this web-based survey about your cat and your home environment. Your responses will help us learn more about relations between cats, their homes, and feline health and welfare.
But our cats don’t always have the choice to manage the stressors in their environment, and stress reduction techniques (such as exercise) may depend on what their humans provide for them. Being dependent on humans also means that cats are dependent on their owners recognizing that they are stressed in the first place!
Unfortunately, stress can manifest in health issues in cats too. One of the most common health issues associated with stress in cats is feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC). In this case, a cat has clinical lower urinary tract signs (LUTS) such as straining to urinate, urinating outside the litter box, or blood in the urine but diagnostics cannot determine a specific cause for the signs (the term idiopathic means disease or condition of unknown cause).
A cat who presents with LUTS is likely experiencing some form of stress. But how do we know what the stressors might be? A recent study, “Epidemiological study of feline idiopathic cystitis in Seoul, South Korea,” sought to determine what factors were related to a higher risk of FIC in cats who live in South Korea. The researchers interviewed owners of 58 cats who had been diagnosed with FIC, as well as 281 owners of control cats who had never had symptoms of FIC. The questions were focused on the cat’s living environment, behavior, and diet as well as questions about the litter box set up.
Based on the records of over 4000 cats in one practice, almost 3% of cats presented with LUTS and more than half of those cats were diagnosed with FIC, suggesting an overall prevalence of FIC of 1.77%. The researchers used statistical analyses to look for relationship between certain aspects of the cats’ environments and behavior and the likelihood of being diagnosed with FIC. This basically involves comparing the number of FIC cats who lived in an environment with a particular feature (such as other cats or outdoor access) compared with control cats.
The results suggested five key factors that were related to FIC: being male, having a litter box with non-clumping litter, living with other cats, living in an apartment (versus a house), and not having an elevated vantage point for use (such as a cat condo or vertical space). So, for example, although there were equal numbers of male and female cats in the control group, males made up almost 76% of the FIC cats. This means that male cats were 2.34 times as likely to be diagnosed with FIC compared to female cats. The effect was strongest in cats who did not have a vantage point in the home, who were 4.64 times as likely to have FIC compared to cats with a vantage point.
Some other things seemed to contribute to FIC, although the relationship wasn’t as strong, such as shared food bowls, whether cats had access to a hiding space, and being middle aged. These are risk factors that merit more careful consideration in future studies.
Things that did not appear to be related to the likelihood of a diagnosis of FIC in this study included the style of the litter box (covered or uncovered), the number of people in the home, and having access to the outdoors.
We would be naïve to think that stress only impacts the urinary system in cats. It’s likely related to several other disease processes, and studies like the current one help us paint a picture of what causes stress in cats overall, even though it can’t necessarily tell us what will stress out YOUR cat. That’s up for you to do your best to understand and prevent, based on what you know about your cat and by providing him or her with things that make the environment safer, more engaging, and by giving your cat a sense of control via choices (in other words, an abundance of desirable resources!).
Living with other cats or not having a vantage point is not a guarantee that a cat will develop FIC, they are just risk factors. It’s possible that there are interaction effects, where cats who live with other cats are just fine if they have a vantage point, or the risks of being male increase if you also use a non-clumping litter. Plenty of cats may cope just fine with living in an apartment, but knowing these risks, we should do what we can to reduce their effects. By providing your cat with a vantage point, and adequate resources, it is possible we can remedy situations that might lead to stress in the first place – and with the added benefit of possibly reducing the risks of disease.
Kim, Y., Kim, H., Pfeiffer, D., & Brodbelt, D. (2017). Epidemiological study of feline idiopathic cystitis in Seoul, South Korea. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 1098612X17734067.
Upper respiratory infection (URI) is a real problem for cats in shelters – not only are cats with URI frequently quarantined, delaying adoption – they must experience both social isolation and medical treatment, just adding to an already stressed cat’s stress. Sadly, URI is also a common reason for euthanasia, as many shelters don’t have the resources to care for these cats. I’ll use my own cat as an example, many years ago, she was 10-months old, adorable, and on the euthanasia list at a local shelter for clear, nasal discharge (AKA URI). Luckily, my dear friend (and shelter co-worker at the time) pulled her from that shelter so she could be placed up for adoption at the shelter we worked at. We scooped her up; she never needed treatment for the URI symptoms, and 14 years later, she’s happy and healthy and an important part of my family!
Shelters were asked several questions about housing, management and other environmental factors. The questions of interest to the study were: amount of space provided for cats in their cage or housing, whether a hiding box was provided, how frequently cats were moved during the first week of their shelter stay, whether young and adult cats were housed in the same rooms, and whether cats were given an intranasal vaccine at intake.
Then shelters were asked to track cats presenting with URI symptoms every day. Cats who arrived at the shelter with symptoms, or who “broke” with URI symptoms within the first two days of their stay were not included, and were considered “pre-existing,” rather than shelter-acquired cases. To determine whether particular viruses were responsible for URI symptoms in different shelters, over 300 healthy cats across the nine shelters had their eyes and mouths sampled for genetic analyses designed to look for calicivirus, herpesvirus, and three other common viruses.
Seventeen percent of cats who entered the shelter contracted URI during their stay. The results suggested cats who had more than 8 square feet of living space and who were moved only one or two times during their first week at the shelter were less likely to come down with URI. Mycoplasma felis and feline herpesvirus were the most prevalent viruses in shelters.
Interestingly, there were higher rates of URI in shelters that provided cats with a hiding space. Intranasal vaccines were also associated with more URI, for unclear reasons - although one possibility is that intranasal vaccines elicit some clinical signs that appear URI-like. There was no effect of whether adult and juveniles cats were housed together.
It should be noted that most shelters (8/9) kept cats in spaces that were SMALLER than 8 square feet. Three shelters always provided cats with a hiding space, three did sometimes, and three did not. In the shelters that provided a hiding space, almost all (5/6) had small cages. Six out of nine shelters moved cats more than twice in their first week in the shelter.
So an important question is whether it was the hiding space per se that was related to the higher URI count, or if it is the association between a smaller cage and the hiding spaces that led to that result. Given that a hiding box is considered an important way to reduce stress in shelter cats, perhaps a larger space is just as (if not more) important. The authors suggest that the hiding space may have reduced available floor space for the cats, which in and of itself may be stressful.
Many shelters are now moving toward the “double cage” model, where the cat’s housing space is two cages connected via a portal. The portal allows for the litter box to be separated from other resources, and also allows shelter care attendants to spot-clean cats’ living spaces while minimizing the stress to the cat (especially for those who are afraid of humans). It also doubles the cat’s space, which we should now be somewhat convinced is a good thing for shelter cats.
Given the stress of being in unfamiliar territory, with strange and often scary sounds, smells, and handling, it’s no surprise that cats in shelters are vulnerable. This study adds to our understanding of how to mitigate that threat: by giving them space, and keeping them in place! Shelters should strive to increase housing space for cats, and to minimize the number of times cats are moved around in shelters!
Wagner, D. C., Kass, P. H., & Hurley, K. F. (2018). Cage size, movement in and out of housing during daily care, and other environmental and population health risk factors for feline upper respiratory disease in nine North American animal shelters. PloS one, 13(1), e0190140.
Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of keeping wildlife as pets. I just report the squirrel news…but sometimes I disagree with it!
A man rescued a squirrel during Hurricane Matthew, and has since kept the squirrel as a pet. His landlord wants to evict him for keeping an exotic animal. The tenant is now claiming the squirrel is an emotional support animal.
Squirrels seem to know how to stay just out of the reach of their predators. This squirrel gives a kitty a run for his money, and escapes unscathed.
After an uptick in grizzly bears killed by trains in Canada, researchers looked for the culprit and found – squirrels were responsible. High populations of red squirrels near train tracks leave “middens,” or piles of food. Given that the bears’ natural food sources have been less plentiful, they’ve been increasingly attracted to the tracks – at their peril.
My friend Pizza Chow recently published her study looking at how well squirrels could remember a puzzle – two years after they had first encountered it. Lo and behold, the squirrels were almost as good at problem-solving as they were when they had last solved the puzzle!
The Kluane Red Squirrel Project, lovingly known as "squirrel camp," is a laboratory studying a multitude of interesting questions about squirrels – such as where they are burying their food and who is having sex with whom. They’re also using cool technology – like accelerometers, to track the squirrels’ activity. They recently found that momma squirrels who can anticipate a bumper year of nuts before the trees actually produce that abundance have more surviving offspring.
Finally, I published a little squirrel research of my own this year, exploring the decisions squirrels make when they are given “mixed nuts” – and interestingly, they cached nuts in a manner that suggested they were organizing nuts by type, even when they received the nuts in random order! You can read about it here!
A man in Michigan heard a strange clicking coming from the hood of his car…and pulled over to investigate. Inside were…hundreds of pine cones. He was pissed, but imagine how the squirrel feels.
If you’ve ever run over a squirrel with your car, or like me, have come close to a squirrel-disaster while on a bicycle – you might wonder – why do squirrel seem to hedge when they’re trying to cross the road? Rather than darting back and forth, why can’t they just commit and make a run for it??
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
I 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!).
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."
Fat cats won't stop loving YOU if you put them on a diet
If 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!
A 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!