How do our cats tell us if they aren’t feeling well? Very subtle-y.
Cats are notorious for hiding signs of illness, and if they are lucky, their human takes them to the vet once a year for a check-up. A lot can happen during that year, so what if I told you that there was something easy you could do to help you assess your cat’s health in-between?
Do you have multiple cats and a food management issue? Do you suspect that Buddy is eating all the food while Fluffy nibbles?
Do you have an older cat?
Do you have an overweight cat?
Then I’m here to convince you that you need a scale for your cat. A good way to get a handle on your cat’s health is to weigh them regularly. A scale is not going to tell you WHAT might be wrong, but knowing your cat’s normal weight and tracking changes can help you see if there might be an underlying issue that needs a vet check, or if your cat’s exercise and weight loss plan is paying off. Weight loss is a sign of many chronic illnesses, especially in senior cats. To that end, I encourage you to see a scale as part of your kitty supply kit, alongside with those interactive toys, litter boxes, and scratching posts.
Often when I’m walking around (I don’t have a car, so I do that a lot), I see a tiny, unused “cat scratcher,” which has generously been placed out on the sidewalk in case someone else wants to make the mistake of thinking their cat will use it. I usually think to myself “awww, the human tried, but they bought the cheapest cat scratcher, and have now (in their mind) reaffirmed the idea that cats won’t use cat scratchers.” If only the human had done a little research, and invested a little more money, they would have had a better chance of getting their cat to use the scratcher instead of the sofa.
So WHAT kind of scratcher do cats like? The short answer is, it depends. But a new study has tried to get a little more info (based on owner report) as to what cats like to scratch. Owner observations regarding cat scratching behavior: An internet-based survey, recently published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, asked over 4000 people to tell them about their cat’s scratching habits and preferences. The results suggest that there might be a mismatch between what cats are offered to scratch, and what they like to scratch.
I recently purchased Meowspace (for more about my Meowspace chronicles, see my past blog posts here and here) – a device that allows me to feed my cats separately, but requires the Meowspace user to learn to get in and out of a box using a microchip-controlled cat flap. Whether I trained my cat or she figured it out herself is a good question.
Even though at times I felt like she was never going to succeed at Meowspacing, it took the Nibbler less than three weeks to learn to use the cat flap. As soon as she figured it out, I lured her in, and set up a videocamera to see exactly what she was doing to get out. At first I was watching her to see what she would do once she was in the box. Turns out she was doing the same thing to me – watching me to see if I was going to help her get out.
If you want to learn a lot about yourself, try training another animal.
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!).