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!
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!
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.
Bird feeders spread avian "pink eye"
As 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.
Not 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.
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.
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.
The 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).
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.
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.
But now a self-proclaimed "aspiring geek" has taken foraging toys to a whole new level...he created a machine that feeds his cat...when the cat drops a ball with an RIFD chip into a gizmo. The cat has to find the balls around the house and carry them to the machine. Really cool!
New software can help us understand how animals perceive colors and patterns. Using filters and different settings for different species, the resulting photo can give you a hint as to the visual world of other animals. Cool and free to download!
Horses have many expressions
Researchers have developed a coding system for facial expressions for yet another species: the horse (such systems already exist for humans, chimps, cats and dogs). Okay, this isn't technically high-tech, as it relies on humans, not technology, to do the actually coding. But, development required a lot of observations and understanding of the facial musculature of horses. Turns out they have at least 17 distinct expressions! Next: to see if these expressions are related to positive and negative emotional states.