Tag Archives: environmental enrichment

Are cats just ruthless killers?

Letting your pet cats outdoors is a controversial topic (and apparently a cultural issue - here in the States, we lean more towards keeping them inside, and the Brits think we're nuts!).  Does it prevent behavior problems? Maybe -- but I have to say I have PLENTY of behavior clients with indoor/outdoor cats who fight with other cats, urinate or spray inside the house, or have aggression or attention seeking issues. So letting cats go outdoors is not the panacea for all feline behavioral ills as some might have you believe (I've previously written about some reasons to keep your cats indoors).

A new book "Cat Wars" might have you thinking that cats are the only source of avian woes (I've also written on this topic before for The Dodo - so don't forget about humans, squirrels, raccoons and other animals that make life rough on songbirds).

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NAUGHTY OR MISUNDERSTOOD? You decide!! Photo via Flickr/CreativeCommons LicenseTommy Hemmert Olesen https://www.flickr.com/photos/tommyhj/
NAUGHTY OR MISUNDERSTOOD? You decide!! Photo via Flickr/CreativeCommons LicenseTommy Hemmert Olesen
https://www.flickr.com/photos/tommyhj/

Are cats naughty or just misunderstood? Those of us who work professionally to help people solve behavior problems in their cats would be more likely to say the latter – I am careful in my own descriptions of behaviors as undesirable as opposed to inappropriate – because most of those "problem" behaviors are normal responses to an unsuitable (or perhaps even inappropriate!) environment.

So given that cats may be misunderstood, how can we increase owner understanding of a cat’s behavioral needs? A new study, The prevention of undesirable behaviors in cats: effectiveness of 7 veterinary behaviorists' advice given to kitten owners, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, took a look at whether a standardized behavior discussion between vets and new kitten owners could prevent misunderstandings later.

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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.

 

 

Tech Meets Feline

I'm a HUGE fan of foraging toys for cats...for example:

The Cat Powered Autofeeder

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!

Some other great foraging toys for cats:

Trixie Pet Catalog - my favorite, the Mad Scientist!

Fundamentally Feline's many foraging toys

The Egg-Cersizer

How do animals see the world?

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!

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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.

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He who crows first...is on top

Roosters are infamous for their early-morning cock-a-doodle-do, but a new study looked closer at this behavior. Turns out that the first to crow is the dominant rooster in the bunch. If you take him away, the next in line in the pecking order takes over those wake-up alarm duties. But the subordinate roosters always waited for the boss to crow first, even if he did so later than usual.

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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.

A new study, “Characterization of pica and chewing behaviors in privately-owned cats: A case-control study,” tried to get a handle on some of the factors that characterize pica in housecats. Previous research has suggested an influence of breed on the ingestion of fabric, with oriental cat breeds showing a predilection toward fabric-chewing and ingestion. Others have suggested that being housed indoors only is a factor, pointing to boredom and stress as a possible cause.

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Urinary tract problems are relative common in cats - approximately 1.5% of cats who go to the vet are treated for them. But the majority of those problems don’t appear to have a specific cause, so cats are often diagnosed with “feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC)” – the term idiopathic meaning that disease process is of unknown origin. I’ve previously reported on the link between stress and litterbox issues in cats; and the relationship between cystitis and stress in humans and cats appears to be a strong one. But what might cause stresses in cats that would lead to urinary tract disease?

A new study from Norway, “Risk factors for idiopathic cystitis in Norwegian cats: a matched case-control study” sought to find out what type of environmental or personality characteristics might put cats at risk for FIC. The authors surveyed 70 folks whose cats had been diagnosed with FIC and as a control, surveyed 95 cat owners whose cats were patients at the same veterinary hospital, but had never shown signs of urinary tract problems. Owners were asked several questions about the cat’s environment, personality, how the litterbox and food/water stations were maintained, and the cat’s opportunities to express species-specific behaviors (such as scratching, play, and perching up high). Seventy-one percent of the FIC cats were males, and most were domestic short-haired cats.

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Science still hasn't totally solved the mystery of why cats love boxes so much. Photo by Walter Smith via Creative Commons License.
Science still hasn't totally solved the mystery of why cats love boxes so much. Photo by Walter Smith via Creative Commons License.

The cats-box thing is a bit of a joke (and internet phenomenon), I mean, why DO cats love boxes so much? Even science has tried (sort of) to tackle the question. We get a range of answers, from predation advantage (a great place to stalk prey from), to fun (think of Maru), to perhaps the most important reasons: safety and security.

But for one group of cats, cats in animal shelters, boxes aren’t just frivolous additions to the environment, they may be critical to reducing stress. Boxes may save lives. Yet another study, recently published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, demonstrates that having an appropriate hiding space reduced stress in shelter cats, and helped them adapt better to being in a new environment.

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You can learn to love brown rice

Well it looks like the methods may be a little sketchy, but a small study suggests that people can learn to see healthy food as rewarding (and show less reward response in the brain to things like donuts and cookies). Can't we have it both ways? I love brown rice AND donuts.

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Do you play with your cat? How about every day? Be honest. I know most of you reading this are pretty lazy about playing with your cats (I can be too). You might even blame it on your cat…”Oh…he doesn't really like to play with toys,” “She liked to play when he was a kitten, but now that she’s older, she prefers to cuddle.” I've heard it all before and I know it’s a lie! Why? Because to cats, play should be practice for predation, and cats are natural-born killers who cannot resist the opportunity to pounce! This doesn't mean that the play is always fun for the human, who may or may not be particularly skilled at eliciting those killer behaviors in their cats. But we’ll get to that. First, let’s look at a recent study examining how play might influence the behavior of cats.

An Owner Survey of Toys, Activities and Behavior Problems in Indoor Cats” was recently published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior. The study was a survey of 277 veterinary clients in Tennessee who were bringing their cats in for a veterinary visit (coming for anything besides a behavior problem rendered someone eligible to participate). The goal of the study was to examine just how much playtime owners give their cats, and how this might be correlated with behavior problems.

Owners were asked standard questions about their cats (such as if they were spayed/neutered, the cats’ sex and the like). The survey also asked owners if the cats eliminate outside of the litterbox, fight with other cats, and if they bite and scratch people. They were next asked how often and long they play with their cat, and what types of toys/activities they provide for their cats (e.g. balls, mice, stuffed toys, catnip, etc.). Finally, they asked participants if they talk to their veterinarian about any behavior problems their cat might be experiencing.

On the human side of things, all owners stated that they played with their cat at least once a month, with 64% claiming to play at least twice a day. Most owners played with their cat for 5-10 minutes at a time. The majority of people (78%) reported leaving toys out all the time for their cat.

On the cat side, we've got a lot of naughty kitties out there. Sixty-one percent of owners reported at least one undesirable behavior, with many cats displaying aggression toward people (36%), closely followed by urination outside the litterbox (24%) and aggression between cats in the home (21%). Of those owners with “problem children,” only half of them had mentioned the problem to their veterinarian.

Photo by Jon Ross via Creative Commons/Flickr
Photo by Jon Ross via Creative Commons/Flickr

Was playtime correlated with behavior problems? Maybe. The owners who played with their cats for longer periods of time reported fewer behavior problems (on average one behavior problem, compared to the 2.25 behavior problems reported by those who played with their cat for only one minute at a time). Behavior problems were strongly related to the sex of the cat, with male cats being more likely to have reported behavior issues, regardless of neuter status.

I do think we should interpret these results with some caution. First of all, we have a very small sample size of people (less than 10) who reported they only play with their cat for one minute at a time. These people may not be representative of a random sampling of people who don’t play much with their cat, and of course, we don’t know if the decreased play is the cause of the behavior problems, or the result (or because of something else altogether). We also don’t know if those who claimed to play with their cat for longer periods of time were being honest. Perhaps many of them only play for one minute as well, they just didn't feel like admitting it!

We also don’t know if people who bring their cats to the vet regularly are different from pet owners who do not. More than half of all pet cats do not get a yearly exam, due in large part to the fact that many cats are afraid of their cat carrier (a subject for another blog post!). So it’s possible that the cats represented in this survey are also somehow different from your average pet cat, for better or worse.

On behavior problems: it seems like a lot of cats are having them (more than reported in a previous study). Is this because people are making less time for their cats? Are more cats bored and indoors? (For the record, I advocate keeping cats indoors only, but it needs to be a loving, fun and stimulating environment!) They also didn't report whether age correlated with behavior problems, but I wonder if aggression toward humans is more prevalent in younger cats and kittens, with more of a playful/predatory bent, than the more fearful, defensive types of aggression problems seen in some cats.

Most people don’t mention behavior problems to their veterinarian, and while the authors suggest that veterinarians can be a resource for help, (no diss on vets, but…) I think it’s important to remember that most veterinarians do not get much (if any) training in cat behavior. In many veterinary programs, ONE multi-species behavior course is an elective, not a requirement (see here, here and here for examples of veterinary curricula). Many veterinarians admit they know little about behavior, while others may give outdated or just bad behavior advice!

That said, veterinarians are hopefully making progress on this end, and hopefully know of some resources for cat-owners that they can at least point them to (such as veterinary behaviorists, CAABS, the IAABC and Cats International) if they can’t answer a client's behavior-related questions! Because behavior issues are a major reason that cats are surrendered to shelters, it is important to intervene and provide assistance early!

This study reveals some valuable information about pet owners and the type of activities they provide for their cats and I have plenty of thoughts about the findings! This study found owners reporting even less playtime with cats than data from a study in 1997, where owners reported 20-40 minutes of daily play with their cats. Sadly, the current figure is probably not enough to meet most cats’ needs.

Food puzzles are a great way to provide enrichment for your cat!
Food puzzles are a great way to provide enrichment for your cat!

Furthermore, people need to expand their selection of toys and activities. In the current study, only 39% of owners reported using an interactive (“fishing pole”) toy with their cats. This is a travesty! Only NINE percent had a cat tree, four percent trained their cats to do tricks, and less than one percent provided food puzzles as enrichment for their cats. I’d say those are four “magic bullet” things that all cats owners can do to immediately improve their cats’ lives, and sadly, not many people are doing any of them.

 

Does your cat have a cat tree? Picture by David Kowis via Creative Commons/Flickr
Does your cat have a cat tree? Picture by David Kowis via Creative Commons/Flickr

So for those of you who might be cringing about the kitty care you are providing right now, I’m going to give you a few quick tips to make playtime easier for you and your cat:

Think like prey – get interactive (that means a toy with a stick that you move, not a toy you just toss across the room) toys that resemble birds, bugs and mice. Move them like birds, bugs and mice! Quiver, skitter, hop, but whatever you do, don’t shove the toy in your cat’s face. No self-respecting mouse would do that. Also, don’t feel the need to wildly wave the toy around constantly. This might work for kittens, but older cats need more calculated play…bringing me to my next tip:

Take advantage of your cat’s stalk and rush hunting style. Stalk and rush means that the predator spends a lot of time carefully watching prey before making a very hasty and deadly attack. Cats really like the “pre-pounce” phase – where the toy is barely moving for many seconds. Watch their eyes – are their pupils dilated? Is their butt wiggling? Are their whiskers forward? If yes, you have feline focus!

This short burst style of hunting means that you don’t always need 20 minute play sessions with your cat. Several 5-10 minute sessions are likely just as effective! Just make sure your cat has a little time to calm down from the play before taking the toy away.

Use all of their senses! We are visual, so we tend to think that cats are too. But they want to use their senses of smell, sound and touch too! Try toys scented with catnip, or small amounts of mint, valerian or even cat food. Remember their sense of smell is much stronger than ours, so a little bit will go far. The scent may help them track toys as you move them around.

Move toys against a scratchy surface, like under a paper bag or rug, or hide the toy behind a table leg and gently tap the toy against the leg. The sound will immediately pique your cat’s interest!

Be sure to let the cat catch and touch the toy frequently. They have many sensitive nerve endings and whiskers in their face and paws to help them hunt. These are designed to help them capture prey. This why lazer pointer play can get frustrating; they can never catch the toy.

Cats can get bored of the same toys. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Cats can get bored of the same toys. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Rotate toysa previous study suggested that cats don’t get bored of play – they get bored of the same old toy. So be sure to take some toys away, and put out different ones. Have multiple interactive toys for play sessions. Switch toys if your cat seems to lose interest and see if she is re-engaged!

 

I hope now you feel a little more inclined to pick up that dusty cat dancer that’s been sitting in the back of your closet and give your kitty a little exercise! You may even have fun and create a bonding moment with your cat…and if you’re lucky, you’ll prevent some behavior problems too!