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.
A new study looks at pica and chewing behavior in cats.
Does your cat like to chew on things that aren’t food? If so, you are not alone. I personally have had cats who liked to chew paper (one cat shredded my rent check once), cardboard, corners of the carpeted cat tree, and the ever-popular plastic bag. Have you ever wondered WHY your cat does this?
When an animal ingests non-food items, that behavior is called pica. Humans do it too, with the most common targets being dirt or paint (yum!). The cause is not well-understood, with nutritional deficiencies, parasites, need for fiber, and obsessive-compulsive disorders all being tossed into the ring of possible reasons.
We've all heard that cats are mysterious and don't communicate, but those of us who work with cats are trying to bust those myths. This article interviews a few cat experts (including Sharon Crowell-Davis, John Bradshaw, and moi! How'd I end up in that mix???) about how cats communicate and how to better understand what they are trying to tell us.
What your cat is trying to tell you: Stop playing with the tin foil!
A fascinating new study was just published that suggests that certain high-pitched sounds (including crumpling tin foil) can trigger seizures in older cats. I have a lot of thoughts about this that will likely merit a blog post next week. In the meantime: read away!
What's up in canine science?
A lot as usual! @DogSpies talks with Dr. Monique Udell, about the state of dog science, and points the way to some current open access dog studies (meaning: you can read them even if you aren't affiliated with a university!!!) in her latest blog.
That big, bumbling sunfish isn't so lazy after all
I love seeing the sunfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (which is apparently the only place to have captive sunfish on display). They look so ancient and blobby, but turns out their quite good at hunting. Scientists attached accelerometers and cameras to some sunfish to see what they get up to. Turns out: eating lots of jellyfish!
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that our pet cats are predators at heart, especially if you just fill their bowl of kibble every now and then. But beneath that fuzzy, cute exterior is a potentially vicious killer, even if your cat doesn’t have the opportunity to practice mass destruction of small animals. That’s where playtime with interactive toys comes in! But more on that later!
There are two major categories of predators: specialists – those who hunt just one or two prey types; and generalists – animals with a broad diet or who may show a wide range of prey preferences within a species. Both types are likely related to prey available, and how an animal has adapted over time to that prey availability. These preferences could be learned during development, such as when a mother cat brings injured prey to her kittens, or could be a response to changes in the environment. If prey abundance changes, predators have to change their responses too…or go hungry.
Who would have guessed that the big research questions of 2014 would be all about cats (okay, I’m biased)? Do cats really love us? Do they recognize our voices? Do they hate petting? Why do they love boxes? Does anyone understand them (even our vets?)? Why are cats so mysterious???