Tag Archives: feral cats

Being a cat behaviorist often means interesting conversations with strangers. People always have questions about their cats, but not always the questions I would like to answer, such as “how can I make my cat happy?” or “how many litter boxes does my cat need?” No – people want to know about idiosyncrasies such as, ”Does my cat hate my boyfriend?” or “Does the full moon make my cat crazy?”

For some reason, people are surprisingly concerned about being eaten by their pet after they die. A Google search for “will your pet eat you when you die” has over 400 MILLION hits. Perhaps you should be concerned because science suggests that the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes.”

A recent paper, “The scavenging patterns of feral cats on human remains in an outdoors setting,” published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, perhaps needs a little context. To my knowledge, the researchers were not directly testing whether cats will eat human remains…but sometimes when you are doing science, the unexpected happens. And sometimes that unexpected is a scientific discovery in and of itself.

In this case, researchers at the Forensic Investigation Research Station (FIRS) in Colorado were doing what they normally do: studying the decomposition of human bodies. Now this alone is a topic of great fascination (at least if you are me), and I highly recommend reading Mary Roach’s book “Stiff” if you want to know more about what happens to bodies donated to science! It’s a truly fascinating read. ANYWAY, back to FIRS. They have an outdoor “decomposition facility” which is fenced to keep out large predators and is under surveillance to monitor the normal tissue damage caused by weather exposure and other happenings, including scavenging by small animals (typically birds, insects, and mice).

The paper reports that five days after a body was added to the outdoor facility, a “striped cat” breached security and was observed consuming said body, which belonged to a 79-year old woman. I hate to say it, but the demographic fits. The cat was consuming tissue from the left arm and chest. In order to complete the ongoing research project without interference by the tabby, a cage was placed around the body for a week, which put a temporary halt to the snacking. But when the cage was removed, the cat returned and continue scavenging the same body for the next month or so.

When a second, all-black cat showed up on the scene, the scientists allowed him to scavenge to his fuzzy heart’s delight. In this case, he chose a 70-year old man’s body who had been in the outdoor facility for almost a week. This cat also had a taste for the left side of the body, preferring the arm and abdomen. The cat made 12 visits over the course of about six weeks, always visiting the same body.

In both cases, the cats showed a preference for a particular body and particular locations on the body. Both cats had ready access to around 40 other people, and new bodies came and went, but each cat chose to chomp on the same body, repeatedly. The cats also showed a preference to scavenge where the tissue had previously been damaged, although the bodies were described as being in relatively early stages of decomposition.

Now lest you think I’m throwing cats under the bus for a sensationalistic news story, I’d like to bring up a few things. First of all, this finding is interesting not just because I’m fascinated by morbid things, but because cats are naturally hunters, not scavengers. Scavenging is something dogs do, and scavenging behavior is rarely observed in felid species. However, this publication opens up the possibility that scavenging is more common than thought in cats. Or that scavenging  might be influenced by other factors, such as hunger.

Second, before you go and hug your dog now that you’ve realized that your cat could eat you if you die – not so fast!! A Google Scholar search for “postmortem injuries pets” led to a deep dive into the world of forensic sciences where indoor pets do occasionally eat their deceased human. This deep dive revealed that perhaps your dog has evolved to love you, but he won’t think twice about eating your body after you die and he’s trapped with your body – EVEN IF HE’S NOT HUNGRY!! Dogs have been found shortly after a human’s death, with a full bowl of food and a stomach full of human flesh. Side note: there was even a golden hamster who indulged in some postmortem tasting of his respective human.

The 1994 publication in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, “Postmortem Injuries by Indoor Pets” identified a few key risks to being eaten by your pet after you die:

  • having free-moving pets in the home
  • being socially isolated (meaning discovery of your body is delayed), and
  • having an illness that might lead to sudden death.

Because some of these scavenging incidents happen shortly after the human dies, other researchers have theorized that it’s not necessarily hunger that triggers the injuries that occur, but an attempt by the pet to get the attention of or even revive their human. That said, a lot of injuries inflicted by pets after their human’s death do appear to be hunger motivated, and many of the pets who did eat their humans also died of starvation themselves (or in one case, from being poisoned from the drugs that their owner had overdosed on).

If push came to shove, would your cat eat you? Yes. But so would your dog. Our pets have no moral code that prevents them from eating flesh, from biting the hand that fed them. They have no need to uphold a standard that -- to many of us -- reflects a deep and loving relationship and a line that should not be crossed. The irony is that many of us have difficulty discerning why we eat some animals and love others. But to our pets, if we are dead, it may be that in that moment we are just meat.

Thank you to Julie Hecht for her helpful feedback on this post!

References:

Garcia, S., Smith, A., Baigent, C., & Connor, M. (2019). The Scavenging Patterns of Feral Cats on Human Remains in an Outdoor Setting. Journal of Forensic Sciences.

Herzog, H. (2010). Some we love, some we hate, some we eat. Harper Books.

Roach, M. (2003). Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. W.W. Norton & Company.

Rossi, M. L., Shahrom, A. W., Chapman, R. C., & Vanezis, P. (1994). Postmortem injuries by indoor pets. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology15(2), 105-109.

Suntirukpong, A., Mann, R. W., & DeFreytas, J. R. (2017). Postmortem Scavenging of Human Remains by Domestic Cats. Siriraj Medical Journal69(6), 384-387.

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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Our pet cats need enrichment, activities and things to do! But do these things only exist out of doors? No! While there are certainly problems that can arise from keeping a cat indoors under insufficiently stimulating conditions, it doesn't have to be that way. Also note there are safe ways to give your cat a taste of the outdoors, such as via a catio/enclosure, cat fence, or harness training!

Those are all topics that could each take up a whole blog post! Today, just some quick food for thought on why you should consider keeping your cat indoors...

1. This won't happen to your cat

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Salamander Brigade! #CitSci to the Rescue!

If a salamander is going to make babies, they have to head to a vernal pool. In some places, that means a deadly trek across a freeway, resulting in many (50-100%) squished amphibians.  Conservationists in New Hampshire started a Citizen Science program to track both live and dead salamanders and give them a little help crossing the road. The Salamander Brigade has over 600 volunteers and helped 25K salamanders get to the pool, and hopefully, find a mate. They've also started photographing and ID-ing salamanders by their individual markings, and found that many of the same salamanders make the cross-freeway trek year after year! So COOL!

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Cats in print

A study examining the role of  cats in New York Times' stories over the year revealed some interesting patterns: cats were mostly hated in the 1800's, and beginning in the 1970's, stories about cats were more focused on welfare issues and treatment of cats. This shift likely reflects the growing interest in human-animal relations, and on-going debates over how we treat all animals. Fascinating!

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Cats + Tech

The MousR is a cat toy being developed to respond to your cats' movements - with "vision" that can detect your cat's reactions. MousR was created by cat-loving PhD students in Engineering at UC Illinois and I'm now wondering if I went into the wrong field! They've almost convinced me to spend $150 on a cat toy! After a successful kickstarter, MousR is set for a fall 2015 release.

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Now, the Meowlingual has me less convinced. For $169, it will apparently read your cat's facial expressions and meows. Given the Bowlingual's less than overwhelming success (Behaviorist Sophia Yin reviewed it on her blog and said: "Overall, my final ruling is that the Bow-lingual is fun to play with for a while if you got it for free, but it’s not very useful since the translations aren’t trustworthy and most don’t make sense." I'm guessing the same is true of Meowlingual. Buyer beware!

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What happens if there aren't enough rabbits for cats?

I recently wrote about a study about cat's individual prey preferences, and one of the authors of that study is a co-author on a new paper looking at the effects of the rabbit population of feral cat predation in Australia. Apparently, cats really love rabbits, but when there aren't enough rabbits, they focus more heavily on other animals, including native birds and rodents. This means thinking twice about rabbit-eradication programs. Read about the study here.

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Why do cats love boxes?

A subject that pops up from time to time, I've even written about it before! People REALLY WANT TO KNOW: why do cats love boxes? It's quite simple really: heat and safety. Wired dug deeper and talked to some cat experts.

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