Tag Archives: cat

The wolf cat — how this bizarre, adorable cat came to be

In May 2021, a cat owner reported to the vet with what she thought was a very sick kitten. The kitten had lost most of her fur and looked skinny and sick. But as it turns out, the cat was just fine — she was just a wolf-cat.

Image credits: steptacular.

A wolf-cat (or a werewolf cat) suffers from a rare genetic mutation that causes them to sometimes shed most of their hair, up to the point where they almost look like a werewolf. The cats are also sometimes called Lykoi, which means ‘wolves’ in Greek.

The breed only seemed to emerge around 20 years ago in Tennessee, but was officially recognized around 10 years ago. Two pairs of wolf cats were used to found and name the breed. DNA testing confirmed that cats have a genetic mutation, and also showed that the cats do not carry the Sphynx gene — and while their fur may sometimes fall off almost entirely, it grows back.

Since the breed is rare, and wolf cats trigger fewer allergies, the breed has become somewhat popular in some circles. It’s also become quite expensive, so a few breeders are trying to produce wolf cats. The mutation can occur naturally in feral cats, but the mutation gene is recessive — which means wolf cat mutation is less unlikely to appear naturally.

Much of what we know about wolf cats comes from a few recent studies carried out on the species. According to the researchers, the breed exhibits something called hypotrichia — a congenital deficiency of hair caused by a reduction in the average number of follicles. The remaining hair follicles are also less capable of supporting hair. Existing hair is also more likely to be discolored.

Because of these mechanisms, the cats lack an undercoat, and when they molt, they can become almost completely bald — this can happen from time to time, and owners should not be alarmed, the researchers say.

Lykoi breed founders from independent sightings identified in 2010. Image from Buckley et al (2020), courtesy of Brittney Gobble.

Although this is somewhat similar to Sphynx cats, there is no genetic relationship between them.

The breed is still relatively new and we’re learning about it, there doesn’t seem to be any disease or health problem associated with the mutation.

“The lykoi is a very recently developed novelty breed with a sparse hair coat and black and white hair roaning, hence named from the Greek term lycos for wolf. To maintain diversity in the founding population, the breeders have actively recruited cats with similar phenotypes for the breeding program, resulting in six different “foundation” lineages identified in this study from 16 potential founders. The breed is growing in popularity due to the novelty of the appearance, the lack of concern for health problems and the charismatic name and nature.”

Novel cat breeds are often developed, the researchers note; but new breeds are rarely as striking as the wolf cat — which again, is caused by a natural mutation. However, by breeding them, we are perpetuating a mutation that would likely be weeded out through natural selection.

In addition, the popularity of novelty breeds like the wolf cat can go up and down, and the breeders usually focus on whatever makes the breed unique — not on the individuals’ health (just look at all the health problems developed by pugs, for instance).

“The hair coat of cats and all mammals is a selective advantage for thermal regulation, camouflage, protection from predators, and a barrier to diseases. In cats, coat color and hair quality are often selected as one of the main traits for developing a new breed,” the authors of one study note, adding that it’s not uncommon for breeders to focus on a particular trait such as the fur coat.

“Cat breeds generally are developed by “novelty” selection. A novel trait, often an unusual hair coat, coloration or morphology, is recognized by the public and then cats with this novel trait are crossbred to develop a breed.”

It’s not clear if the wolf cats suffer from any health issues, but it would be very plausible. For instance, Sphynx cats (which don’t have any hair at all) are more prone to lung infections and other respiratory diseases due to their lack of fur. They can also develop skin cancer if they spend too much time in the sun, for the same reason.

Since Lykoi cats are relatively new and there are still few individuals, there have been very few studies on their health, so we don’t know if they suffer from similar or other conditions, but hopefully, with them being recognized as an official breed in 2017, that will soon change.

So far, the wolf cat seems to be a novelty breed enjoying some success among breeders, and with no obvious health issues. They have less fur, which will likely make them more popular with people with allergies, and they’re also pretty cute, in a wolfy, lycanthropy kind of way.

Whether or not wolf cats become more common remains to be seen. But they’re definitely a breed to keep an eye out for. We can only hope that breeders will prioritize their health, not their appearance.

This article originally appeared in September 2021.

A medieval scribe curses a cat for peeing on his manuscript

In 1420, a scribe in Deventer (the Netherlands) had a rather unpleasant day. He left the manuscript which he was working on open on the desk. It proved to be quite a mistake as when he returned, he found that a cat had urinated on his pages

This prompted a hilarious writing now preserved for posterity.

The Latin version reads thusly (don’t worry if your Latin is a little rusty, there’s an English translation below:

Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.

English:

Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.

The scribe continued to write on the urinated pages, but one can only imagine the stench that impregnated the pages. He probably had more curses for the cat than the one he wrote down. The way the writing is arranged is also very telling: on the left, everything is ordered and neat, whereas on the right it looks more like a scribble than a proper text.

So given their inclination to ruin all things, why were cats allowed in medieval libraries in the first place? Especially since paper to write on was expensive and difficult to produce, this seems like an unwise idea. However, cats played a very important role: they defended the manuscripts from pesky rodents. This is brilliantly illustrated by a ninth-century poem, written by an Irish monk about his cat “Pangur Bán”:

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

You can read the entire poem here.

If there’s any lesson to be learned here — don’t heave your manuscript open at night when there’s a cat around. As a matter of fact, don’t leave anything out. Looking directly at my cat-chewed headphone cable, I can only empathize with the scribe in Deventer.

Archaeologists discover 2.000-year old cat figure in Peru’s Nazca Lines

A group of archeologists has discovered a massive feline figure carved into an arid hillside in southern Peru over 2,000 years ago. The geoglyph measures 37 meters (121 feet) across and is part of the Nazca Lines, a collection of hundreds of artworks carved onto a plateau near Lima, Peru’s capital.

Credit Peru’s Ministry of Culture

The newly discovered cat now joints a wide array of other zoomorphic drawings found across Peru over the last century. These include a hummingbird, a monkey, and a pelican. The figure was discovered during maintenance work at a visitor center in what is already a popular tourist destination.

“The figure was barely visible and was about to disappear as a result of its location on a fairly steep slope and the effects of natural erosion,” the Peruvian Ministry of Culture said in a press release. “Representations of this type of feline are frequently found in the iconography of ceramics and textiles in the Paracas society.”

The Nazca Lines were created by pre-Hispanic societies that removed the top layers of rock and gravel to reveal a lighter-colored bedrock beneath. UNESCO describes them as “the most outstanding” group of geoglyphs anywhere in the world, unmatched in extent, quantity, size, and diversity.

Despite the pandemic, research and conservation work has continued at the Nazca Lines. Archaeologists and employees were working on the Mirador Natural, a lookout point in the protected site, when they began unearthing something intriguing. The clear lines showing the sinuous body of a cat soon emerged. Following cleaning and conservation work, the archaeologists uncovered a series of lines varying in width from 30 to 40 centimeters (12 to 16 inches). The style of the artwork they found suggests that it was created between 200 B.C. to 100 B.C., in the late Paracas period, the ministry said.

The region has long been of interest to historians. Archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe first discovered the mysterious lines carved into the landscape in 1920. Then, with the expansion of air travel, further artworks were discovered from above. Researchers have continued to uncover more lines and develop theories about them.

“One of the things that continues to surprise, and that many ask, is how we still find new geoglyphs,” said Johny Isla, the director of the Nazca Lines conservation mission at the Ministry of Culture, as quoted by Euronews. “In fact, there are new ones and we will continue to find more,” he said.

Last year, researchers from Japan’s Yamagata University discovered more than 140 geoglyphs in the region with the help of 3D imaging. They were carved out of the sand on a Peruvian coastal plain and resemble both living and inanimate objects.

Cats kill up to 10 times more wildlife than natural predators — so keep them indoors

GPS trackers measured the range of domestic cats. Credit: Roland Kays.

The vast majority of U.S. households own at least one pet and according to a national pet owners survey, there were approximately 95.6 million cats living in households in the United States in 2017. Along with dogs, cats are the most popular pets — but while many of us truly adore these sweet fur balls, pet felines are natural-born killers that can wreak havoc on ecosystems.

Researchers at North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences distributed GPS trackers to pet owners in six countries, most of which were used in the U.S., U.K, Australia and New Zealand.

By the end of the study, the researchers had collected data on the movements and prey-catching of 925 house cats — and the results were gruesome.

The cats killed up to 10 times more wildlife than a comparable predator in the wild. Most of the carnage took place close to home, around a 100-meter radius of the household where cats spend most of their time outside.

“Since they are fed cat food, pets kill fewer prey per day than wild predators, but their home ranges were so small that this effect on local prey ends up getting really concentrated,” said Roland Kays, the study’s lead author. “Add to this the unnaturally high density of pet cats in some areas, and the risk to bird and small mammal population gets even worse.”

Previously, a 2013 study found that pet cats kill between 1 and 4 billion birds each year and up to 22 billion other mammals.

“We knew cats were killing lots of animals – some estimates show that cats in North America kill from 10 to 30 billion wildlife animals per year – but we didn’t know the area in which that was happening, or how this compared with what we see in nature,” Kays said.

The researchers computed the number of animals killed every year by house cats — with some adjustment since not all prey is brought home by cats — and then divided this number of the surface area in which the cats hunted. They found that house cats killed 14.2 to 38.9 animals per 100 acres, or hectare, per year, depending on how lazy or active the house cat is. Most of the ecological damage is done in disturbed habitats, such as housing developments, the researchers reported in the journal Animal Conservation.

For comparison, a jungle cat kills around 400 prey per month. However, its range is around 600 hectares while a house cat’s range is around 3.5 hectares. When the researchers did the math, house cats actually killed 4 to 10 times more prey per unit area than their wild counterparts.

“Because the negative impact of cats is so local, we create a situation in which the positive aspects of wildlife, be they the songs of birds or the beneficial effects of lizards on pests, are least common where we would appreciate them most,” said study co-author Rob Dunn from NC State. “Humans find joy in biodiversity, but we have, by letting cats go outdoors, unwittingly engineered a world in which such joys are ever harder to experience.”

While we’re on the subject of cats, you might also enjoy learning about:

Most people struggle to read cats’ expressions, but “cat whisperers” don’t

Researchers at the University of Guelph (UoG) found that you’re probably bad at reading the emotions in a cat’s face — unless you’re a “cat whisperer”.

Image via Pixabay.

Most people have a hard time picking up on the emotions hidden in a cat’s facial expression. Cats use non-vocal cues such as body pose and facial expressions to communicate a wealth of information, but these behaviors and grimaces tend to be very subtle, flying under the radar of most humans. Some people, new research has found, are very good at understanding these cues — a group the team calls “cat whisperers”.

Overall, women and people with veterinary experience were better than average at recognizing a cat’s expression, even those that said they don’t feel a strong attachment to cats.

Dropping hints

“The ability to read animals’ facial expressions is critical to welfare assessment. Our finding that some people are outstanding at reading these subtle clues suggests it’s a skill more people can be trained to do,” said Prof. Lee Niel, who led the study with Prof. Georgia Mason, both from UoG’s Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare.

The team explains that previous research into this topic only focused on expressions of pain, not fear, frustration, or positive emotions.

For their study, the team recruited more than 6,300 people from 85 countries. The participants were asked to watch 20 short online videos of cats from a collection of 40 videos (most of them from YouTube) and then complete a series of online questionnaires.

These videos showed cats expressing positive emotional states (usually involving situations that the animal sought out, just as receiving a treat or a pat) or negative states (cats retreating, fleeing, or experiencing health problems), but none showed expressions of fear, such as flattened ears or bared teeth — the team explains that these expressions are already widely understood by people. The videos focused on the cat’s face (eyes, muzzle, and mouth).

Each participant was asked to indicate whether the cat was experiencing a positive state, a negative one, or if they were unsure as to what the animal was feeling.

Most participants said they found the test challenging, and the results reflected this. The average score was 12 out of 20 correct answers, which is just about as accurate as a coinflip. However, 13% of the participants scored around 15 out of 20 correct answers: these are the “cat whisperers”. Women were more likely than men to be cat whisperers, as were veterinarians or vet technicians compared to other professions. Overall, younger adults tended to score better than older adults.

“The fact that women generally scored better than men is consistent with previous research that has shown that women appear to be better at decoding non-verbal displays of emotion, both in humans and dogs,” said Mason, who worked on the study along with post-doctoral researchers Jenna Cheal and Lauren Dawson.

In a rather surprising find, whether or not a participant reported a strong attachment to cats had no bearing on how well they scored. The team says their findings suggest that it is possible to train people to better read cats’ facial expressions. You can test your ability to read a cat’s expression using this test the team put together.

“This is important to be able to do because it could help strengthen the bond between owners and cats, and so improve cat care and welfare,” said Niel.

The paper “Humans can identify cats’ affective states from subtle facial expressions” has been published in the journal Animal Welfare.

Cats form affectionate bonds with humans, similarly to dogs and infants

Cats have a reputation for being aloof creatures that simply cannot be disturbed with trivial human affairs (unless there’s some tasty treat involved). Meanwhile, dogs are excited to do anything with their owners and are ready to embark on an adventure at the flick of a tail.

But, that doesn’t mean that felines don’t become attached to their caregivers all that different from dogs.

A caregiver watches offer her pet cat after the two were separated for a brief time. This is an example of secure attachment. Credit: Oregon State University.

A new study found that pet cats form both secure and insecure bonds with their caregivers, similarly to canines, as well as human infants. This means that the cats are much more attached and socially attuned to humans than many have given them credit.

“Like dogs, cats display social flexibility in regard to their attachments with humans,” said Kristyn Vitale of Oregon State University. “The majority of cats are securely attached to their owner and use them as a source of security in a novel environment.”

According to John Bowlby, the first attachment theorist, attachment is a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”. There are three different attachment styles: secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment, and avoidant-insecure attachment.

A securely attached child will show some sign of distress when a parent or caregiver leaves and happiness when they return. In this case, the child feels upset that the parents leave him, but those feelings are tempered by the knowledge that the parent will return. When a securely attached child is frightened, she will look to a parent for comfort, because she is confident mom or dad will provide reassurance.

Children who are ambivalent about their attachment to a caregiver typically become very distressed when that parent leaves. This is usually due to the parent’s lack of availability.

Avoidant attachment means a child tends to avoid a parent or caregiver. Given a choice, these children show no preference between a parent and a complete stranger. Research suggests this attachment style is probably the result of abusive or neglectful caregivers.

So, when infants are separated from their parents, their reaction upon reunion is telling of their type of relationship. For instance, secure infants are happy to see their caregiver but will quickly return to a relaxed exploratory state while insecure children engage in excessive clinging or avoidance behavior.

The photo shows a cat with insecure-avoidant attachment. Credit: Oregon State University.

Vitale and colleagues tested this type of behavior in cats by allowing felines to spend two minutes in a novel room with their caregiver followed by two minutes alone. Then, a two-minute reunion followed.

Previously, similar tests were performed with primates and dogs. The new findings allowed the researchers to classify the felines’ response to seeing their owners again into attachment styles.

This cat is rather clingy to her caregiver, an example of an insecure-ambivalent style of attachment. Credit: Oregan State University.

Surprisingly, the results showed that cats bond to their caregivers similarly to infants, with 65% of individuals being securely attached to their owners. Stable attachments may have facilitated the species’ success, growing alongside humans and their homes.

In the future, the researchers plan on expanding their researchers to cats and kittens that wind up in animal shelters.

“We’re currently looking at several aspects of cat attachment behavior, including whether socialization and fostering opportunities impact attachment security in shelter cats,” Vitale said.

The findings appeared in the journal Current Biology.

Analysis of 19 million cats shows how our pets’ weight evolves throughout their lifetimes

New research is looking into how fat our cats are.

Orange cat.

Image credits Tasos Lekkas.

Fat cats — they’re definitely adorable. But, until now, we didn’t have any reliable way to tell if they’re getting too fat. New research based on over 54 million cat weight measurements hopes to establish a baseline body weight value that veterinarians and cat owners can use to gauge the health of domestic cats.

Chunky fur babies

“As humans, we know we need to strive to maintain a healthy weight, but for cats, there has not been a clear definition of what that is. We simply didn’t have the data,” said Prof. Theresa Bernardo, the IDEXX Chair in Emerging Technologies and Bond-Centered Animal Healthcare, the paper’s corresponding author.

“Establishing the pattern of cat weights over their lifetimes provides us with important clues about their health.”

The researchers from the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) report that most cats keep putting on weight as they age, peaking at an average of eight years old. Another finding is that the average weight of our cats is also on the rise. The team looked at 54 million weight measurements recorded at veterinarian offices on 19 million different cats. They then broke this dataset down by gender, breed, and neutering status. The study is the first one to draw on such a large pool of data, and it provides important baseline information for owners and veterinarians.

Male cats tend to reach higher peak weights than females, and neutered or spayed cats tend to grow heavier than unaltered cats. Siamese, Persian, Himalayan, and Maine Coon breeds (who the team write are the four most-common purebred cat breeds), reached peak weight between 6 and 10 years of age. Your common domestic cats reached mean peak weight at around 8 years of age. Finally, the team notes that the mean weight of neutered, eight-year-old domestic cats increased between 1995 and 2005 but remained steady between 2005 and 2015.

“We do have concerns with obesity in middle age, because we know that can lead to diseases for cats, such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis and cancer,” said Dr. Adam Campigotto, the study’s lead author.

“Now that we have this data, we can see that cat weights tend to follow a curve. We don’t yet know the ideal weight trajectory, but it’s at least a starting point to begin further studies.”

Over half (52%) of the cats used in the study only had one body weight measurement on file, the team adds, which suggests that their owners either didn’t bring them back in for regular vet checkups or took them to a different veterinary clinic. The authors explain that it’s important to monitor weight changes in cats.

“Cats tend to be overlooked because they hide their health problems and they don’t see a vet as often as dogs do. So one of our goals is to understand this so that we can see if there are interventions that can provide more years of healthy life to cats,” Bernardo explains.

“The monitoring of body weight is an important indicator of health in both humans and animals. It’s a data point that is commonly collected at each medical appointment, is simple to monitor at home and is an easy point of entry into data-driven animal wellness.”

Campigotto advises pet owners who are concerned about their cat’s health or weight to buy a scale and form a habit of weighing the animal at home. He explains that weight gain or loss can be “an indicator of an underlying problem.” In the future, the team plans to analyze if automated feeders with built-in scales can be used to reduce cat obesity, in an effort to change “the emphasis to cat health rather than solely focusing on disease.”

The paper “Investigation of relationships between body weight and age among domestic cats stratified by breed and sex” has been published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

If you think cats are antisocial, it’s probably you, new study concludes

Despite being intertwined with humans for millennia and enjoying dramatic internet popularity, the personality of cats remains surprisingly understudied. A new research paper concludes that if you feel cats are antisocial — it’s probably you.

It’s not Fluffy’s fault — it’s probably yours. Isn’t that right, Fluffy?

We all know how cats can be… demanding, independent, but also caring and attached. In fact, if you talk to different people about the personality of cats, you might get completely opposite answers. In a new paper, Kristyn Vitale, a postdoctoral scholar in animal behavior, writes that cats are “facultatively social animals” — they have flexible personalities and can be more or less friendly, depending on the situation. But how do they decide whether or not to be friendly and attentive? In the new study, Vitale suggests that cats are surprisingly attuned to our own personality — and to how much attention we pay them.

The study featured two experiments, both designed to highlight the cats’ interactivity. In the first one, 46 cats (half at a shelter, half in their own homes) were placed in a room with a complete stranger who sat on the floor. For 2 minutes, the person ignored the cat. After another two minutes, they would call the cat by its name and pet it when it approached.

The second experiment involved only pet cats, who went through the exact same experiment with other owners. Both experiments revealed the same thing: cats spent much more time near the human when it showered them with attention.

“Relatively little scientific research has been conducted on cat-human social behavior,” researchers write in the study. “Human attentional state and cat population influenced cat sociability behaviors,” they continue, adding that regardless of whether the cats knew the person or not, they were still more social when paid more attention.

This study indicates two things: first, cats are kind of like us. Sure, some are friendlier while others tend to keep to themselves, but if you pay attention to them, they enjoy it and become friendlier. However, since cats are territorial animals, there were big differences between how cats behaved in their home and in a different place.

Cats don’t seem to be overly independent, researchers conclude:

“Although we have found that indeed a wide range of individual variation exists in domestic cats, we have not necessarily seen this bias toward independence.”

Some cats are definitely friendlier than others — and exactly why this happens is not clear, though it’s most likely a complex mixture of genes and previous experiences — but for cat owners, the takeaway is simple: if you want your cat to pay more attention to you, try paying more attention to it.

The study “The quality of being sociable: The influence of human attentional state, population, and human familiarity on domestic cat sociability” has been published in Behavioral Processes.

Credit: lifewithcats.tv.

Viking cats show that domesticated felines have grown bigger in time (as well as a gruesome history)

Credit: lifewithcats.tv.

Credit: lifewithcats.tv.

Domesticated animals are usually smaller in size, have fewer teeth, and fewer or less pronounced defense adaptations, such as horns. Dogs, for instance, are about 25% smaller than gray wolves, while other domesticated animals, such as chicken or sheep, are so dependent on people they could barely survive without us. But cats seem to be an exception — in terms of size at least.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen studied hundreds of feline bones from the time of the Iron Age, Vikings, and Middle Age, and then compared them to modern house cats. The results suggest that cats grew by about 16% between the Viking Age and today. The study also has a darker side to it. According to the findings, some cats were clearly skinned by Vikings, who likely used the pelts to fashion clothing and traded them for other commodities.

Cat history

Cats’ long journey to today’s internet adoration started some 9,000 years ago, according to a 2017 genome-wide analysis. Cat populations seem to have grown in two distinct waves. First, Middle Eastern wildcats expanded with early farming communities to the eastern Mediterranean some 9,000 years ago. Presumably, newly founded grain stockpiles became infested with rodents and cats helped purge the pests earning their keep alongside humans.

It’s not clear when cats became domesticated but the Egyptians might have had the first some 6,000 years ago. From Egypt, the felines rapidly expanded across the rest of Africa and Eurasia. Cats spread to Europe as early as 4,400 B.C, but it wasn’t until much later that the felines arrived in Scandinavian countries, brought by seafaring people.

Viking cat skulls (upper right corner) compared to modern cat skulls (lower right corner). Credit: Anne-Birgitte Gitfredsen.

Viking cat skulls (upper right corner) compared to modern cat skulls (lower right corner). Credit: Anne-Birgitte Gitfredsen.

The researchers at the University of Copenhagen analyzed countless bones collected from various archaeological sites across Denmark. The remains cover almost 2,000 years of feline history, from the late Bronze Age and ending in the 1600s. Many of these bones were sourced from pits where Vikings disposed of the dead cats… after they had removed their fur, judging from clear cut marks on the bones.

By comparing the remains to modern Danish cats dating from the 19th century to the present day, the researchers concluded that domesticated cats grew by about 16% since the Viking age. Since only remains from sites in Denmark were included in the study, it may be too early to draw generalized conclusions.

Cats may have grown bigger due to more access to food, particularly rodents who were attracted by mounting waste and food supplies in expanding settlements. Broiler chickens, for instance, are two times bigger than they were in medieval times. In time, cats became well fed because humans started cherishing them, feeding them some of their own food. It’s not clear, however, whether cats are bigger today because they eat more or due to some genes that make them plumper. This is something that a new study in the future might answer.

The findings were reported in the Danish Journal of Archaeology.

Macro cat tongue.

Cat’s tongues are surprisingly complex — and better at cleaning than any brush we have

Cat’s scaly tongues are actually very, very good at cleaning fur. So good, in fact, that they could teach our doctors and engineers some tricks, a new study reports.

Macro cat tongue.

Image credits Jennifer Leigh / Wikimedia.

Feline owners out there will know that their pet’s tongue can be really scratchy — especially when they’re grooming. One team of researchers from Georgia Tech wanted to know why. Their research reveals how the rough tongues help cats clean their thick fur and cool down on hot days.

Rough around the middle

“Their tongue could help us apply fluids, or clean carpets, or apply medicine” to hairy areas on our body, says lead researcher Alexis Noel.

The secret behind the feline tongue’s roughness — and its superb cleaning ability — is a layer of tiny hooks that cover the surface. These hooks have groove- or scoop-like structures that help them drive saliva deep into the fur. They’re really effective at it, too. The team says these structures can help inspire new inventions for a wide range of application. Noel himself is already seeking a patent for a 3D-printed, tongue-inspired brush.

Cats, when not busy presenting us with dead presents, spend a lot of time grooming their fur; around a quarter of their waking hours are invested in personal hygiene, the team reports. Given how thick their fur can get, and how hard licking it clean seems to be, this isn’t really surprising at first glance. However, Noel’s curiosity was piqued when she witnessed her cat getting its tongue stuck in a fuzzy blanket. She wondered why her pet’s tongue is covered in those cone-like bumps. Luckily for us all, her lab has a background in animal-inspired engineering — so she set out to find the answer.

The team started by taking computerized tomography (CT) scans of cats’ tongues. This step revealed that the ‘cones’ are, in fact, hooks shaped much like a cat’s claws. They typically lie with their barbs pointing towards the neck (i.e. out of the way), until a certain tongue muscle springs into action. At that point, the spines spring straight up.

What really surprised the team, however, was that these spines (called papillae) contain hollow scoops. The researchers obtained preserved feline tongues (from zoos and taxidermists) to study — bobcats, cougars, snow leopards, lions, and tigers all share this trait, the team explains. Papillae were only slightly longer in lions than in housecats, although the tongues of larger felines hold many more such structures.

Feline Papillae.

Comparison of feline papillae from CT scans.
Image credits Alexis Noel / Georgia Tech.

When dabbed with drops of food dye, these spines absorbed the liquid. Noel’s team estimates that a housecat’s papillae (roughly 300) hold saliva and release it when pressed against fur — and ensure that the animal can thoroughly clean its mane. Lab tests with a machine that the team constructed to mimic the strokes of a cat’s grooming showed that saliva from the tongue’s surface alone simply can’t penetrate as deep.

The team also measured cat fur. Our pets are usually quite fuzzy since their manes try to trap as much air as possible to insulate the animal. When compressed, however, the thickness of fur matches the length of these spines in many types of cat, the paper adds. One exception is Persian cats with their super-long fur that veterinarians caution must be brushed daily to avoid matting.

Finally, these spines aren’t just about staying clean — a thermal camera showed evaporating saliva cooled the cats as they groomed.

The paper “Cats use hollow papillae to wick saliva into fur” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cat market fish.

Veterinary community releases tips and tricks on how to properly feed your cat

The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) released a Consensus Statement yesterday, advising cat owners on how to better feed their pets.

Cat market fish.

Image via Pixabay.

Aren’t cats awesome? They pad into our lives on their little feet one day, and proceed to make everything better. We want to take good care of them in return, but the way we feed our cats may cause them all sorts of problems, the AAFP explains. Luckily for us, the association has also released a “how to feed” guide to help keep our pets in good health.

Pawsitively educational

“Currently, most pet cats are fed in one location ad libitum, or receive one or two large and usually quite palatable meals daily. In addition, many indoor cats have little environmental stimulation, and eating can become an activity in and of itself,” says the Consensus Statement’s chair, Tammy Sadek.

“This current type of feeding process does not address the behavioral needs of cats.”

The manner in which most people feed their cats is a poor match for the behaviors these animals have evolved with, the document explains. Cats are naturally tailored to hunt and forage for their food. They tend to eat small but frequent meals, and generally do so in a solitary fashion. It may be quite time and effort intensive to create these feeding conditions for your cat, but it does pay off — allowing cats to exhibit these feeding behaviors regularly can help alleviate or prevent stress (and obesity) related issues such as cystitis, inactivity, and overeating.

A more natural feeding program can also help anxious cats mellow out. This will have particularly beneficial effects for anxious cats that share a household with other felines — and so may not access the food frequently enough, causing weight loss.

“Appropriate feeding programs need to be customized for each household,” Sadek adds, “and should incorporate the needs of all cats for play, predation, and a location to eat and drink where they feel safe.”

The Consensus Statement is accompanied by a small brochure that offers some helpful tips on how to provide a feeding environment that keeps cats happy and well (but not over-) fed.

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”Here are some I found particularly helpful or interesting” footer=””]

  • Using puzzle feeders and hiding kibbles around the home gives your cat some exercise, keeps it entertained and stimulated (both mentally and physically), and improves weight management without too much hassle on your part. Simple, easily manipulated puzzle feeders should be introduced first.
  • Placing bits of food in different or new locations, including elevated areas when the cat’s physical status allows, can help offer cats forage opportunities and engage their senses in searching for food.
  • A cat’s daily food allowance should be split into multiple small meals over a 24 h period.
  • The caloric needs of your cat will vary over time — talk to your vet, monitor your pet’s condition, and adjust food portions accordingly. Food can be measured when filling feeding stations and again 24 h later to determine how much your cat has eaten.
  • Treats shouldn’t exceed 10% of the pet’s daily caloric intake, in order to avoid dietary imbalances. Small treats work best since they’re easily consumed, your cat enjoys them, and they’re low on calories.
  • Have separate watering stations throughout your home.
  • Cats generally like to eat alone. They tend to view the feeding area as their safe space. In multi-cat households, separate feeding areas (it’s important that they are visually separated, i.e. out of sight of each other) can help reduce anxiety, stress, and their associated health complications.
  • Feeding stations should not be close to litter boxes.

[/panel]

The Consensus Statement also highlights the importance of feeding programs, and the criteria they should take into consideration. If you want to set up a feeding program for your pet, the AAFP recommends you set a clear goal — ‘my cat needs to lose weight’, ‘I want to improve its nutrition’, etc. — and then work with a veterinary professional to design the program.

All in all, I’m definitely going to implement a few of these tips when I get back home today.

The paper “Feline Feeding Programs: Addressing behavioral needs to improve feline health and wellbeing” has been published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.

Business students are more likely to have a brain parasite infection spread by cat feces

Credit: Pixabay.

Students in the US who are infected with a weird brain parasite commonly spread by cats are more likely to major in business studies, according to a new study. The findings suggest that the infection may be promoting entrepreneurial tendencies by reducing fear and enhancing risk-taking behavior.

Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite carried by cats and found in their feces, but which can also be acquired after consuming poorly cooked meat or contaminated water. A third of the world’s population is thought to be infected with the parasite.

Once it infects a human host, the parasite can cause toxoplasmosis, which is the leading cause of death attributed to foodborne illness in the United States. More than 60 million men, women, and children in the U.S. carry the Toxoplasma parasite, but very few display symptoms because the immune system usually keeps the infection from causing illness.

But even though they might not feel sick, Toxoplasma-carrying individuals may experience changes in their behavior induced by cysts in the brain formed by the parasite, which can remain for the rest of an individual’s life.

Lifecycle of T. gondii. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Lifecycle of T. gondii. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Jaroslav Flegr, a Czech evolutionary biologist, claims that the parasite is quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents.

A reduced response to fear seems to be a common occurrence. Studies conducted by Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky on rats infected with Toxoplasma showed that rodents actually turned their innate aversion to felines into attraction, luring them into the jaws of the predator. Basically, the parasite carried by the cat brainwashes the rat — and perhaps human owners too, some claim —  to become attracted to the feline.

An assessment of nearly 1,300 students from the US also found an association between exposure to the parasite and reduced fear response. The students who were exposed to the parasite were 1.7 more likely to be majoring in business studies. Particularly, they were more likely to focus on management and entrepreneurship than other business areas.

What’s more, the researchers found that individuals who attended business events were almost twice as likely to start their own business if they were infected by Toxoplasma gondii. Countries with a high prevalence of Toxoplasma infection showed more entrepreneurial activity, according to the results published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The parasite may be reducing a person’s fear of failure and promoting risk-taking behavior — the kind of fearless mindset that is generally required of entrepreneurs. Of course, that doesn’t mean that infected individuals are actually more successful entrepreneurs — most businesses actually fail within their first five years of activity and a poorer risk-evaluating ability induced by the parasite infection might actually be extremely detrimental to business activities.

Have a fat cat? Here’s how much you should feed it to lose weight, according to science

It’s a problem many cat owners struggle against: extra pounds. Not on themselves, but on their beloved furry pets. Especially after being neutered, house cats can get lazy — and fat. Most owners switch to special diet or neutered food (hopefully), but that’s not always enough, as often times, cats just eat too much. Now, a new study from the University of Illinois comes to the rescue, explaining just what it takes to help kitty slim down.

In other words, they came up with a cat diet.

“A diet for me? Why, human?” Because being fat is bad for you, kitty. Image credits: Allen Watkin / Wikipedia.

“The intent with this diet was a healthy weight loss: getting rid of fat while maintaining lean mass. The big question was how much does it take to make cats lose weight, especially lazy neutered males? It turns out you have to keep reducing their food intake because they’re not very active. It takes a long time,” says Kelly Swanson, a Professor at the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois.

Keeping a pet on a diet can be more difficult than with a human. It’s not just about the motivation and know-how — there are many more health risks associated with weight loss in pets than in humans. But as long as the change is slow and gradual, things should be ok.

“The risk with rapid weight loss, especially in a cat, is hepatic lipidosis. The body releases too much fat, and the liver gets bogged down. They can’t handle that much,” Swanson says. “We targeted a 1.5 percent body weight loss per week, which falls in line with the range (0.5-2 percent per week) suggested by the American Animal Hospital Association.”

So the first goal is to achieve a 1.5% body weight loss per week, and in order to do this, pet owners should reduce food intake by 20 percent compared to a maintenance diet. But this is only the first step. After that, food intake should be cut bit by bit. Researchers monitored the cats so that their health wasn’t threatened as they successively reduced the food intake. The key to the sustained weight loss was the constant, small reduction of food.

“That’s a key point. When we go on a diet ourselves, we might lose a lot of weight in the first few weeks and then hit a road block. Same with these animals. We had to keep going down, but it can be hard to convince a pet owner to do that. You might get owners to reduce intake from 60 to 50 grams per day, but we’re telling them they might have to go to 45 or 40 grams. We got really low, but we were monitoring them so they were healthy,” he says.

A small but constant reduction of food intake is key to our pets’ weight reduction. Image credits: NekoJa / Wikipedia.

Cats’ weight, like dogs’, is typically assessed on the Body Condition Score (BCS), which rates from 1 to 9. A BCS of 1-3 indicates a less than ideal weight, while a 6-9 BCS indicates an overweight animal. Ideally, pets should have a BCS of 4-5. However, people often tend to underestimate their pets’ BCS. Basically, pet owners tend to ignore their furry friends’ extra pounds. This means that it’s not just the pets, but the humans as well that need to be trained.

“We’ve done some clinical studies in dogs showing that misconception. If you have a veterinarian do a BCS assessment of a pet and then have an owner do it, the owner will almost always underestimate the BCS. Owners need to acknowledge the weight status of their pets.”

“The second thing that needs to change is the owner’s behavior: getting them to reduce food intake to maintain a healthy BCS. Food companies recognize that many owners feed too much, so they’re trying to formulate their diets so it’s easier for the animals to maintain or lose weight even if an owner overfeeds,” Swanson says.

The eight cats in the study were housed together, only going to their individual cages to be fed. Researchers report that their level of activity hasn’t changed significantly over the course of the diet. Researchers emphasize that it’s also important to ensure that your cats are active by playing with them and placing food bowls farther away from favorite resting spots.

Journal Reference: Marissa R. Pallotto et al. Effects of weight loss with a moderate-protein, high-fiber diet on body composition, voluntary physical activity, and fecal microbiota of obese cats. https://doi.org/10.2460/ajvr.79.2.181

Kodkod.

There’s still hope to stave off extinction for the smallest cat in the Americas, study shows

The smallest cat in the Americas is struggling under huge pressure as clear-cutting destroyed its habitat and farmers defend their chickens with deadly force.

Kodkod.

Image credits College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences – CFANS.

This being the Internet, cats are in charge. I don’t make the rules, I just report here. So get ready to have your socks blown clean off because today we’re talking about the cutest bit of cat this fair planet has ever spawned: prowling under the name of kodkod or güiña (Leopardus guigna), this is the tiniest cat in the Americas.

Sadly, though, we’re driving them extinct.

Kitten-sized hopes

The güiña wildcat of Chile is also known as the little tiger cat, little spotted cat, or Chilean cat. It’s absolutely as adorable as those names make it out to be, reaching about half of the size of a domestic cat at adulthood. It’s also listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, which shows “a high risk of endangerment in the wild” and is just one step shy of being endangered.

According to the IUCN, there are only about 10,000 individuals left in the wild. It’s got to this point because much of Chile’s tropical rainforests, which form most of the güiña’s habitat, have been chopped down for farmland in the last decades. The tiny feline is also at risk from human persecution over fears that it might hunt livestock.

However, new research led by researchers from the University of Kent, UK, shows the animal is able to survive near human settlements on agricultural land. The biggest threat it faces, the paper reports, is being squeezed out when large farms are broken down into smaller ones.

“This is because there is a higher risk of human interaction and persecution in areas where there are more farms; a greater pressure on natural resources through increased timber extraction and livestock grazing; and even competition for food from domestic animals kept as pets,” said lead author Nicolás Gálvez.

Over the last 25 years, Chile has lost over two-thirds of its temperate rainforests. However, through a combination of questionnaires, camera-trap footage, and remote-sensing data, the team found that this isn’t the main stressor on the güiña — in fact, the felines seem remarkably adaptable to forest loss, and have been seen in pine or eucalyptus plantations or close to agricultural areas.

Surprisingly, large, intensive agricultural areas may actually be suitable for the güiña and shouldn’t be dismissed as poor quality habitat for the species, they add. This is thanks to areas which are left unfarmed and offer refuge, food, and suitable conditions for rearing young.

However, the issues of illegal killings by humans and farm subdivisions go hand-in-hand. Questionnaires revealed that around 10% of rural inhabitants had killed a güiña sometime in the last decade. The cat is viewed in a bad light in such communities, mostly out of fear that it will kill chickens. Large, farms that practice intensive agriculture on wide, open fields do provide adequate environments for the güiña. As farmers break these entities down into smaller farms, they also switch to less intense agriculture and rely more heavily on livestock — setting the stage for a conflict with the tiny carnivores.

“This suggests that persecution is much less of a threat to their survival than the subdivision of farms,” said co-authod Zoe Davies, a professor at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent.

The findings could be used to better inform conservation efforts and keep the güiña from going extinct. It could also help conservation efforts for other medium-sized carnivores across the world.

The paper “A spatially integrated framework for assessing socioecological drivers of carnivore decline” has been published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

cat-asthma

Having a cat around the house keeps asthma away in newborns

Danish researchers have found evidence that having cats around newborns significantly reduces the risk of developing asthma. Delving deeper, the team at the Copenhagen Studies on Asthma in Childhood Research Center (COPSAC) found that the presence of cats keeps deactivated a gene that doubles the risk of a child developing asthma.

cat-asthma

Credit: Pixabay.

For the new study, the group of researchers studied data on 377 Danish children whose mothers have asthma. The team led by Hans Bisgaard, professor of pediatrics and the head of COPSAC, sequenced the genomes for each child and collected information about their upbringing and environment. With this in mind, not only were the parents surveyed, samples from their homes were also taken.

A variation in the 17q21 gene, called TT, is known to be heavily involved in whether or not a person develops asthma in early childhood. About one in three children carried the TT gene variant.

Surprisingly, cats removed the risks associated with the TT gene variant by keeping it shut down. To make things more interesting, dogs did not offer any kind of protection signaling there’s an environmental factor strictly associated with felines.

What’s more, the analysis found evidence indicating cats not only offer protection against asthma but also against pneumonia and inflammation, the authors reported in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Previously, in 2013, American researchers also found a positive association between cat ownership and reduced asthma incidence in young children up to 5 years of age. 

Left-hand side image shows asthma development in children carrying the TT gene variant, as compared to other children who lack the variant. Solid line indicates levels of cat allergens in the house, which are associated with a lower risk of developing asthma. Credit: Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Left-hand side image shows asthma development in children carrying the TT gene variant, as compared to other children who lack the variant. Solid line indicates levels of cat allergens in the house, which are associated with a lower risk of developing asthma. Credit: Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Scientists don’t know what is it about cats that deactivates the TT gene variant but previous research carried out by the same COPSAC found cats can also activate the eczema gene. Win some, lose some.

Such findings go to show just how complex the development of allergies and asthma can be, featuring a tangled interplay between genes and the environment. It’s not clear at the moment how much exposure to cats children need for the asthma protection to kick in. This is something other studies meant to replicate the findings might answer.

Lead-author Jakob Stokholm says that bacteria that cats carry and perhaps fungi or viruses could be involved in the asthma protection effect. This may be important to investigate since once they can isolate the TT gene deactivating driver, scientists may then be able to develop treatments which don’t necessarily involve physically having a cat in the house. But, let’s face it, why wouldn’t you?

“This [research] is of course interesting to develop, because if we can explain these mechanisms, it opens up opportunities to isolate them and to protect against the disease,” Stokholm told The Local. 

 

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Where humans went, cats followed — the story of cat domestication started 9,000 years ago

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cats’ long journey to today’s internet adoration started some 9,000 years ago, an extensive study which analyzed ancient feline DNA suggests. Wildcats were first domesticated in the Near East, then again in Egypt. According to the researchers who conducted the study, humans brought cats everywhere they went, from Egypt’s fertile plains to Viking longboats.

Cats: conquerors of the ancient world

Previously, researchers had sequenced the DNA of a couple of mummified cats from ancient Egypt, where the animals used to be treated like royalty and millions of such mummies abound. Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris and colleagues really took it a step further, though.

They analyzed mitochondrial DNA from the remains of 352 ancient cats from more than 30 archaeological sites across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The oldest cat was dated from 15,000 years ago while the youngest used in the study lived during the eighteenth century C.E. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited exclusively from the mother’s side which makes it an ideal marker for phylogenetic and population analysis. These probably didn’t look and behave too differently from today’s African sand cat. 

“We don’t know the history of ancient cats. We do not know their origin, we don’t know how their dispersal occurred,” Geigl said.

But we’re starting to learn

Cat populations seem to have grown in two distinct waves. First, Middle Eastern wildcats expanded with early farming communities to the eastern Mediterranean some 9,000 years ago. Presumably, newly founded grain stockpiles became infested with rodents and cats helped purge the pests earning their keep alongside humans.

It’s not clear when cats became domesticated but the Egyptians might have had the first some 6,000 years ago. From Egypt, the felines rapidly expanded across the rest of Africa and Eurasia. Cats spread to Europe as early as 4,400 B.C.E. For instance, a mitochondrial line common in Egyptian cats from the fourth century B.C.E. was found in cat DNA collected from samples in Bulgaria, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa from around the same time. This was the second major wave of feline expansion. Cats even made their way along with sea-faring people, as evidenced by DNA found on a Viking site dating to between the eighth- and eleventh-century A.D. in northern Germany.

“There are so many interesting observations” in the study, says Pontus Skoglund, a population geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “I didn’t even know there were Viking cats.”

Also according to the study, cats have changed very little in appearance since they were domesticated (though some claim house cats aren’t really tamed, just semi-domesticated). Physically, wildcats and house cats, are of about size and shape, though their behavior differs.

As another interesting finding, after the researchers sequenced nuclear DNA — valuable for tracing ancestry, not just population dispersion — they found the mutation responsible for the familiar tabby cats on the Taqpep gene didn’t appear until Medieval ages.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Mixed cat-and-dog teams are the best defense against rodent pests

Cats and dogs working side by side may be the best rodent control method at our disposal according to an international team of researchers. The question now is, how do we reconcile these age-old rivals for the task at hand?

Image credits Rihaij / Pixabay.

Working as part of an international research team, Robert McCleery, associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, found that a combined team of cats and dogs reduced rodent foraging in and around households or storage buildings. They also detail that neither species working by itself will help deter the pests.

Paw and claw

Pest rodents have caught on pretty early that agriculture means ample food. Even better for them, there’s a species who will do the heavy lifting of growing, harvesting, and storing all that food in one place for them to nibble on — that’s us. So they’ve become a staple of human settlements since times immemorial.

Naturally, this didn’t sit well with us humans. We brought our pet animals to bear upon the pests, starting the most literal game of ‘cat-and-mouse’ in history. That this idiom today stands for a very contrived, lengthy process with little chances of success should tell you how well it’s been going for us.

Hint: he didn’t bake his own bread.
Image credits Alice Rosen / Flickr.

So what can we do to finally stack the deck in the cat’s favor? Bring in dogs, one team of scientists says. Working in tandem, these two species of pets can significantly reduce pest rodents’ activity in and around human households or farms, they say.

Led by Themb’alilahlwa Mahlaba at the University of Swaziland, the team conducted an experiment in four agricultural villages in Swaziland. Although the research is limited geographically, McCleery said the findings apply globally. The worked on 40 households in the villages, dividing them into groups of ten. One group had only dogs, another only cats, one group of homes was guarded by both species, and a control group with neither. They studied rodent pests living in these households.

McCleery said that the team considered a species a pest if it “lives in your house or eats your crops and is usually not native to the area where it is found.” Their data shows that individual species of working animals aren’t very effective at deterring pests, but using both dogs and cats provides good results.

“This might reduce food damage and potential for disease transmission,” McCleery said.

“Farmers might want to consider cats and dogs as a way to discourage rodent pests in areas where they store their crops.”

GUD news

The team first placed plastic lunchboxes filled with sand and peanuts in the houses for seven consecutive days so the rodents would get used to this source of food. Then, they installed ‘control tiles’ — basically white square tiles sooted black — alongside the lunchboxes for 5 consecutive days and nights in July (the cool dry season) and 5 in October (the hot dry season).

As rodents passed over the tiles, their little paws would leave a white track. Each tile’s surface was broken down into squares, and the percentage of squares with tracks gave an estimate of rodent activity in each house.

The bait was refreshed before the control tiles were installed, and then each day during the experiment.

“A total of 86 rodents of two species were captured within buildings and out-houses around homesteads in the study area. The majority (73) of specimens were Rattus rattus, with the remainder (13) being Mastomys natalensis,” the paper reads.

The team also observed the rat’s Giving Up Density (GUD), which showed how often the animals gave up forage in homesteads with both cats and dogs — basically, the intensity of the ‘fear factor’ the guardians instilled. In boxplot below, you can see how much ‘ratctivity’ the houses have seen in July (left) and October (right).

I’ve put the basic gist of the graph in the caption, but here’s a more in-depth guide to reading boxplots.

Boxplots show the upper limit (topmost line), median value (strong line) and lowermost limit (lower line) of rodent activity. 
Image credits Themb’alilahlwa A. M. Mahlaba (2017) PLOS One.

And here’s the GUD.

Image credits Themb’alilahlwa A. M. Mahlaba (2017) PLOS One.

The results show that rodents displayed significantly more fear and reduced foraging activity in homesteads guarded by both cats and dogs. Taken alone, either species had less success deterring rodents, with cats having a slight edge across the board.

“The results of this study are particularly interesting to me as they will make a big contribution to the efforts at managing rodents in and around homesteads,” Mahlaba said.

“Showing that dogs have a role in rodent management has overturned my long held ideas on this subject. Now all we need to do is to find out why and how the combination of cats and dogs drastically reduces rodent activity in and around homesteads.”

The full paper Domestic cats and dogs create a landscape of fear for pest rodents around rural homesteads” have been published in the journal PLOS One.

In 1975, a physicist co-authored a paper with his cat. He did it for a very good reason

F.D.C. Willard, also known as Chester, is a cat who co-authored a high-quality physics paper in 1975 in a reputed journal. His owner had a very good (and practical) reason for including Chester as one of the authors.

Chester was a siamese cat like this one.

Jack H. Hetherington was a professor of physics at Michigan State University in 1975. His research yielded some valuable results in the field of low-temperature physics so he sent a paper for publication in the Physical Review Letters – one of the leading journals in physics. So he sent it for peer reviewal, and it was received warmly, but one reviewer signaled a problem. Hetherington had used the pronoun “we” throughout the paper when in fact, he was the sole author. You see where this is going?

Keep in mind, this was happening in 1975 before the internet was a thing, and even before computers. In fact, the entire paper was typewritten, and for all you kids out there — that took a LOT of time. So Hetherington had two possibilities: either rewrite the entire thing or find another author. The first option just wouldn’t do, it was too much wasted time. But adding another author was also problematic as Hetherington himself admitted: it would reduce his prestige and even his financial remuneration. There was also the problem of time: the results were really promising, and for every day he waited, Hetherington risked someone else finding the same results and pitching a paper in front of him. So after “an evening’s thought,” he found the solution: just add Chester as an author.

Now obviously, ‘Chester’ is not something you can put on a scientific paper, so he invented a name: F.D.C. Willard. The “F.D.C.” stood for “Felix Domesticus, Chester” and Willard was the name of Chester’s father. So “selling” F.D.C. Willard as one of his colleagues from the university, Hetherington re-sent the paper, where it was promptly accepted and published, going on to be quoted more than 50 times to this day. Job well done, Chester!

Of course, people eventually found out about it but Hetherington says he has no regrets. As quoted in a piece on Today I Found Out, Hetherington said, “Everyone laughed and soon the cat was out of the bag.”

“Why would I do such an irreverent thing? … If it eventually proved to be correct, people would remember the paper more if the anomalous authorship were known. In any case I went ahead and did it and have generally not been sorry.”

In the end, everyone (except for the journal’s editors) laughed about the idea and went with it. After all, the paper was good, and Hetherington’s motivation was understood by the community. He even took the joke further and issued reprints signed by both authors — a regular signature under his name, and a pawprint beneath Willard/Chester’s name. He even started describing his cat as the university’s “Rodentia Predation Consultant.”

Someone from the University reportedly even invited Willard/Chester to join the University full time, probably as a publicity stunt (or who knows, maybe for his research inclination). The letter hilariously read:

“Let me admit that if you had not written I should never have had the temerity to think of approaching a physicist so distinguished a physicist as F. D. C. Willard with a view to interesting him in joining a university department like ours, which after all, was not even rated among the best 30. Surely Willard can aspire to a connection with a more distinguished department.”

But it ended on a more optimistic note:

“Can you imagine the universal jubilation if in fact Willard could be persuaded to join us, even if only as a Visiting Distinguished Professor?”

As for Willard, his comment on the matter was never obtained, though hopefully he got some privileges after his success as a publisher. He even went on to publish another scientific paper, this time in French. It didn’t receive the recognition the first one did, but it did ensure that Willard was the only cat to ever publish scientific papers in two different languages.

You can read the first paper here and the good thing is that the American Physical Society declared in 2014 that all cat-authored papers would now be available as open-access documents. They did that on April 1st.

 

Nutmeg the Cat celebrates 31st birthday. He’s the oldest ca in the world

This tabby cat just celebrated its 31st birthday, after recovering from a serious illness.

Moggy Nutmeg from Gateshead, UK is believed to be the oldest cat in the world. The cat popped up at its owners’ house 26 years ago, and they immediately adopted it – obviously taking care of it well.

”He rules the house and he’s absolutely gorgeous,” Nutmeg’s humans told The Mirror.

Despite being the equivalent of about 141 human years, Nutmeg suffered from a very serious stroke last year and now seems to be thriving. Now he seems to be quite healthy, and if everything goes right then he still has a few more lives to him.

Like every cat, he’s spoilt and enjoys his morning meal – and his morning love.

“He is spoilt rotten… He comes in every morning at five am and we get up and feed him”

It seems incredible that a cat can live to this age, but Nutmeg isn’t even the oldest cat we know of. Creme Puff, born in 1967, lived to be 38 years old, holding the record for the oldest cat. Its owner, Jake Perry had another cat which lived to be 34 years. In a book about these two cats, authors note that their longevity might be in part owed to their unusual diet, which included among other things, bacon and eggs, asparagus, broccoli, and coffee with heavy cream.

However, in order to ensure the best life for your cat, bacon and eggs are not really recommended. Making sure your pet has a balanced diet, taking care of its teeth and regular visits to the vet – is.

Want to meet another amazing feline? Check out the sand cat. 

 

A reddit user's cat has taken box sitting to a whole new level. Credit: Rissaka

Why cats love boxes so much

Cats can be odd — they sleep for up to 20 hours a day and get scared by cucumbers, but they also get very enthusiastic and are great playmates. Apart from catnip, there’s nothing a cat loves more than boxes. Any box will do, actually: big, small, tall, short… the cat will take it, no questions asked. So, what’s up with that?

A reddit user's cat has taken box sitting to a whole new level. Credit: Rissaka

A reddit user’s cat has taken box sitting to a whole new level. Credit: Rissaka

I know you came here looking for a scientific explanation to this age-long question, but I’m sorry to tell you that the jury is still out. However, that doesn’t mean that we’re clueless: animal behaviorists and psychologists have some pretty interesting and sensible explanations they’ve shared with us.

For one, if we’ve learned anything from the myriad of studies on cats is this: they enjoy closed spaces. They’re practically the opposite of claustrophobic, and derive comfort and well-being from being as crammed in as possible.

The box: a place of safety and security

Apparently, it's a feline thing. Credit: Fellowships of the Mind

Apparently, it’s a feline thing. Credit: Fellowships of the Mind

This is especially true for stressed cats, as recounted by Claudia Vinke of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Vinke did a study in which shelter cats were studied for stress. The team provided hiding boxes for some of the cats that had recently arrived at the shelter while depriving others. The cats that had the boxes at their disposal had far less stress hormones in their blood. Later on, the boxed cats were more familiar with their environment, less panicked and more inclined to interact with humans. In this case, it seems boxes are a means for the felines to hide in to evade a stressful situation. The same can be said about wild cats as well, only they tend to choose trees or caves to retreat into, while house cats just have shoe boxes. The sample size of just 19 cats was small, but the paper concludes, “The hiding box appears to be an important enrichment for the cat to cope effectively with stressors in a new shelter environment the first weeks after arrival.” They hope to extend the work to longer-term studies and to consider cats housed collectively.

Shelters can be stressful environments for any animal, yet cats love boxes even when there’s nothing unfamiliar going on — just like in your safe and boring home. In this case, we can only say that cats prefer to linger in boxes or other small enclosures at home because they feel the safest and most comfortable this way, especially when dozing off.

cat-boxes4

It’s also worth noting that cats are poor at resolving conflicts. If they feel they want to “disappear” for whatever reason (don’t let this hurt your feelings), a cat will run to a box.

Cats might love boxes, as well as any other small enclosures, because they feel warmer inside. According to the National Research Council, the thermoneutral zone for a domestic cat is 86 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit. This is about 20 degrees higher than the comfort zone of humans.

Whatever’s their reason for cardboard adoration, if you care for a feline help it out by always keeping an empty box around.