Tag Archives: environmental enrichment

I’m a big fan of food puzzles as an enrichment choice for cats. As natural predators, cats have evolved to work for their food. We brought them inside, handed them a bowl of food, and took their jobs away. At least that’s the way I like to think about it.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with food puzzles, check out the website Food Puzzles for Cats (disclaimer, I am co-owner of the site, but I get no financial benefits from it!). Food puzzles are like other types of foraging enrichments that are used with zoo and laboratory animals. They’re commonly used with pet dogs (e.g., the Kong), and more recently, food puzzles are increasingly being designed for cats. The idea is that an animal must forage for food – for cats this can range from a very simple activity (such as rolling a ball, allowing dry food to fall out) to more complex problem-solving (such as having to slide open doorways to access a well of food).

Previous studies of foraging devices have shown reduced aggression, increased activity, and reduced stereotypic behaviors in various species (including rats, monkeys, and horses). A new study, “Pilot study evaluating the impact of feeding method on overall activity of neutered indoor pet cats,” published last week in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, evaluated the effect of food puzzles on activity levels in cats, utilizing accelerometer-based “activity collars” to measure movement.

Nineteen household cats participated in the study. Cats were either free-fed or fed once or twice per day. Using a crossover design, half of the cats were recorded for a week while feeding from their regular food bowls first, then recorded for a week while feeding from food puzzles; the other half of the cats were recorded using food puzzles first, then back to the bowl. Cats were given a week to acclimate to food puzzles and a week between conditions. All cats successfully transitioned to food puzzles to eat all their food. Feeding happened according to the previous feeding schedule for each cat (freely available food, or fed at one or two mealtimes per day).

Eleven of the cats used the Indoor Hunting Feeder which has five matching mouse-shaped puzzles, and the other eight cats used five different food puzzles made by PetSafe, including the SlimCat and Egg-Cersizer. Cats were assigned to puzzles based on an initial preference test.

Results showed no differences in activity levels based on how cats were eating (bowl vs puzzle). There was also no effect of puzzle type (Indoor Hunting Feeder vs PetSafe puzzles). In fact, the only real effect was that of age – older cats were less active in general.

The results may seem counter-intuitive, because after all, didn’t the cats have to move around to get the food out of the puzzles? Well there are a few possibilities:

  1. The cats have to move around to get the food out of the puzzles, but cats eating out of bowls compensate by moving around at other times – in either case, most of the cats in the study spent the majority of time inactive.
  2. The sample size was small, which might make it hard to tease apart differences between the bowl-feeders and puzzle-feeders. In statistical terms, we call this “underpowered.”
  3. Food puzzles really don’t increase activity (but perhaps they offer other benefits, such as slowing down feeding, and providing mental stimulation, warding off boredom or other problematic behaviors).
  4. The effect of food puzzles might be dependent on other factors (such as offering multiple types of enrichment).

I’m sure you can think of other explanations! Other studies have demonstrated an increase in anticipatory activity levels in cats when they are waiting for a meal, and that increasing the number of meals per day is a good way to increase activity in cats. Moreover, it would be great for someone to repeat this study with even more cats to increase statistical power, so that we can be certain the results are reliable.

So, if food puzzles DON’T increase activity levels in cats, should we just forget about ‘em? No way! As my co-authors and I reported a few years ago, we have seen many benefits of food puzzles when used with cats. I found it very encouraging that 100% of the cats in this study had no problem switching to puzzle feeding!

The benefits of food puzzles for cats may not be exactly what we thought in regard to activity levels (at least in the short term), but given the expansive research on the benefits of foraging enrichment for other species, I’d say the positive effects for cats most likely outweigh any failure to increase activity. That said, we might have to re-frame how we talk about those positive effects.

 

References

Dantas, L. M., Delgado, M. M., Johnson, I., & Buffington, C. T. (2016). Food puzzles for cats: feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery18(9), 723-732.

Naik et al., (2018) Pilot study evaluating the impact of feeding method on overall activity of neutered indoor pet cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, doi: 10.1016/j.jveb.2018.02.001

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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