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Why cats sleep all day?

Why do cats sleep all day?

Famous American poet Rodney Mckuen once said “cats have it all; admiration, an endless sleep, and company only when they want it”. If you have a cat (or more), it’s probably not that hard to relate to these lines. Cats receive a lot of praise only for being cute, and they’re always quick to enjoy a nice (and often lengthy) nap. But why do cats sleep so much? Turns out, there’s a good reason for that.

Image credits: Jacalyn Beales/Unsplash

If you think cats are sleep addicts, that’s not exactly true. Similar to jaguars, ocelots, and some other members of their feline family, cats are actually crepuscular beings — they’re most active between sunset and sunrise (around twilight). The reason is that their prey is often crepuscular — so if you’re a cat and want to hunt something, that’s a good time to go about it. Many years ago (before we started domesticating them), when both cats and their prey lived in the wild, cats had to stay awake and hunt between dusk and dawn in search of food. 

Hunting could be a very energy-demanding process for any animal, and cats can cover impressive ranges in their search for food. So in order to recharge themselves for the next hunt, cats have developed a habit of sleeping a lot during the day — after all, it doesn’t make much sense to spend extra energy. So evolution pushed cats to sleep so much, and particularly during the day, when humans tend to be most active.

Domestication of these furry animals by humans has certainly brought some changes in their behavior and lifestyle and nowadays, house cats at least don’t roam the wild during the night looking for mice and rabbits — but their sleep-wake cycle has remained largely unchanged. This is the big reason why, for cats, daytime (when we regularly interact with them) is for resting, and resting is serious business.

How much sleep is enough for my cat?

Cats usually require around 15 hours of sleep in a day, but this can vary. Kittens and aging cats tend to sleep more, even up to 20 hours. Active cats may sleep as little as 12 hours. Most of the time cats go through a slow-wave sleep (SWP), light sleep, or a catnap during which their nose and ears are in alert mode and they are sleeping in such a posture that they can evade instantly as soon as they sense any danger. A catnap usually lasts between 15 to 30 minutes.

At least 12-14 hours of sleep is required for cats and both REM and light sleep are important for their health because good sleep ensures better energy conservation, muscle repair, good immunity, and the overall well-being of cats. The diet of cats mostly consists of protein (meat, fish, milk, etc) so proper sleep is also needed for complete digestion of their protein intake. 

However, as far as sleep timing is concerned there is no fixed time at which all cats prefer to go to sleep in the day. Cats have the ability to set their sleeping hours as per their feeding pattern, and one research also reveals that some cats adjust their sleep timing as per the activity of their owners.

What do cats dream about?  

Image credits: Gokul Barman/pexels

Only 25% of a cat’s total sleep is deep sleep and this is the time during which your cat may go through REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, a unique sleeping phase accompanied with dreams (yes, cats can also dream) and involves increased brain activity, it is also experienced by humans and birds. If your cat’s limbs are twitching or whiskers are showing a slight regular movement during her sleep, it is possible that she might be dreaming. Maybe dreaming about you… but probably not — research suggests they’re likely dreaming about being on the hunt.

However, there’s still a chance that your cat may be dreaming about you from time to time. Professor Dr. Nicholas Dodman from Cumming Vet School, New England told Metro in an interview that cats exhibit many of the physiological and behavioral characteristics that humans also manifest in their dreaming. It’s entirely possible, according to a report, that cats dream of a variety of things, from their prey to other cats to their owner petting them. 

Why cats sleep more when it’s raining?

Factors like weather and temperature also affect a cat’s activity and sleeping pattern, and it has been found that on rainy and cold days, cats spent more time sleeping. If you are a cat owner, you may have noticed your cat often lying near the heating system in winters. This is because cats are warm-blooded animals like us which means that on a cold day they require more energy to keep their internal body temperature balanced.

Also, cats, in general, prefer sunny weather and don’t like the rainy season. Cats and water are rarely good friends, and there’s a good reason for this too: it’s hard for them to stay warm during the wet season, and they also hate the noise that comes from the clouds. Plus, if they do get wet, it’s very hard to dry out and the moisture on their skin and fur can easily make them catch a cold.

Cats also tend to sleep more when they feel safe, and tend to pick sleeping spaces where they feel nothing can disturb them. But more sleep is not always a good sign. If your normal-aged cat is sleeping more than 15-16 hours a day, it is possible that she could be suffering from boredom, physical pain, hyperthyroidism, depression, etc. These disorders occur more frequently in cats that are overweight and you should consult a vet if you notice a sudden change in the sleeping habits of your cat or if it sleeps excessively. Just like humans, cats’ sleep patterns can offer hints about their health.

Just like a good night’s sleep is important for the proper functioning of our body, a good day’s sleep is necessary for a cat’s well-being. So the next time your cat is yawning in front of you as you work, don’t call them lazy. They just have a different sleep setting than yours — and arguably a better one.

The gene that gives tabby cats their adorable stripes

Credit: Pixabay.

House cats exhibit quite a great deal of diversity in the coloration and patterns of their fur compared to their wild feline relatives. One of the most common coat patterns is the tabby, consisting of undulating swirls, stripes, and dots — a timeless classic. Now, scientists have figured out the development process, showing that the tabby pattern remarkably starts appearing while a kitten is still an embryo.

Greg Barsh, a scientist at the Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology and a professor of genetics and pediatrics at Stanford University, and colleagues collected and examined nearly a thousand house cat embryos from pregnant feral cats admitted to veterinary clinics for spaying. Most of these embryos were between 25 and 28 days old, which is apparently old enough for skin cells to develop.

“Color patterns are one of these unsolved biological mysteries; there’s no go-to model organism to study it — mice don’t have stripes or spots,” said Barsh. “The color patterns and variability that you see in animals like tigers, cheetahs and zebras prompted some central questions for us: What are the developmental genetic mechanisms and the cellular mechanisms that give rise to these patterns and how have they been altered during mammalian evolution to give rise to the amazing diversity of shape and form we see today?”

The gene that signals where stripes, spots, and blotches go

When the researchers examined the embryos under a microscope, they saw thicker skin dispersed across regions with thinner skin. The pattern resembled the tabby coat of an adult cat, which was very surprising considering that, at this stage, the embryos had yet to develop hair follicles and pigments, the most important components that color animal skin and fur.

Upon closer inspection, the team found that cats have at least two different types of skin cells, each of which is expressed by distinct sets of genes. For tabby cats, the DKK4 gene is essential since it is the one responsible for mapping the pattern of thick and thin skin in the developing kitten embryo.

Thick skin had more proteins expressed by the DKK4 gene and would later be covered in darker fur, while the thin patches had less DKK4 expression and would be covered in lighter-colored fur.

These findings nicely complement those from an earlier study, also led by Barsh, which identified a gene that controls coat color variation in tabby cats.

“We knew from studying domestic cats that there were other genes that contributed to color pattern formation; we just didn’t know what they were,” Barsh said. 

Not all tabby cats are the same, though. Mutations always occur, resulting in alterations in coat colors and patterns. For instance, some tabbies have white spots or thinner stripes.

Beyond answering a mere curiosity, the study is extremely valuable because it advances our understanding of one of the most important aspects of developmental biology: pattern formation.

Part of a grander picture

In 1952, British mathematician Alan Turing, regarded as the father of modern computing, published a landmark paper that described how biological cell patterns form and when they know it’s time to stop division.

The brilliant mathematician imagined that biological patterns are formed due to interactions of certain chemicals he called  “morphogens” that initiated and directed patterns by triggering on- or off-switches. Turing used math to show that these morphogens could move in 3-D space, a movement now known as diffusion-reaction, and deconstructed patterns seen in animal fur and leaf shapes.

We now know that Turing’s morphogens are actually activating or inhibiting molecules produced by the expression of genes. Turing patterns in hair follicleschicken feathers, and teeth-like shark “scales” have all directly been shown to be produced by the interaction between an activator and an inhibitor chemical. In the case of tabby cats, the DKK4 gene acts as an inhibitor.

However, Turing patterns can be found everywhere in nature. The diffusion-reaction equations have been used to model countless 2-D and 3-D patterns seen across the natural world, from fingerprints to semi-arid landscapes.

Now that scientists know which gene is important in house cat fur development, they can look for it in other species. They believe the same development process is present in tigers and cheetahs, considering house cats have been bred by humans for only 9,000 years.

But there are also other unanswered questions. The DKK4 gene alone doesn’t explain the rich array of colors sported by the fur of domestic cats.

“This is one of the big unanswered questions in our work — how to connect the process of prepattern formation to the process that implements the pattern later in development,” Barsh said in a statement. “That’s something that we’re actively trying to figure out.”

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Communications.

Pets seem to have benefited from the pandemic overall, and cats may have benefited the most

The lockdown seems to have made cats more loving as pets, a new study unexpectedly reports.

Image via Pixabay.

Being locked inside definitely did a number on many people’s mental health and general well-being. As we’re going back to our more regular ways, researchers are hard at work examining how this experience impacted all of us. And some of them are also looking at how it impacted our pets.

One such study from the Universities of York and Lincoln in the UK investigated the changes people perceived in their companion’s welfare and behavior during the lockdown. It further looked at any association between these changes and variations in the daily life, behavior, and reported mental health of the owners. From all species of pets involved in this study, cats seemed to have become more affectionate than the rest, judging by the percentage of owners who reported this change in their pet. Cats also seemed to exhibit more positive changes in welfare and behavior than dogs.

Feline fine

“While it has long been recognized that pets can enrich the lives of humans, the welfare of a companion animal is strongly influenced by the behavior of their owners, as well as their physical and social environment,” said Professor Daniel Mills, animal behavioral specialist at the University of Lincoln and corresponding author of the paper.

“During lockdown changes experienced by our pets may have included having owners around for more of the day due to furlough or working from home, alterations to their daily routine and limited access to animal-related services, such as training classes or veterinary care.”

The survey included over 5,000 reports from UK pet owners regarding the mental health of the animal, the quality of the bond between them and the owner, and any apparent changes in the pet’s welfare and behavior. The data was collected during the 2020 lockdown. Over two-thirds (67.3%) of them reported seeing such changes during the first phase of the lockdown, and the team statistically grouped these reports into separate positive and negative welfare scales.

Overall, the reports suggested that owners who had poorer mental health scores pre-lockdown saw fewer negative changes after the quarantine, but pets with poorer mental health by the same time saw the most reported changes, both positive and negative, in animal welfare and behavior. The team’s hypothesis is that these individuals were more likely to offer more attention to their pets following the lockdown, which means more engagement with their animals. In turn, this can help foster some changes in the pet’s welfare and behavior, but likely also increases the likelihood of owners observing and reporting changes.

Still, roughly one third of cats and dogs seem not to have been affected by the first lockdown. Roughly 40% of individuals in other species seem to have been unaffected on average, the team adds, and many individual animals seem to enjoy better welfare after the fact. Between 10–15% of all owners explained that their animal appeared more energetic and playful. Between 20-30% said their pet seems more relaxed.

In aggregate, for every owner who reported overall negative changes in their pet’s welfare and behavior, at least three owners reported seeing improvements.

“Our findings extend previous insights into the perceived welfare and behavior changes on a very limited range of species to a much wider range of companion animal species,” Professor Mills said. “Owner mental health status has a clear effect on companion animal welfare and behavior, and is clearly something we need to consider when we seek to do what is best for the animals we care for.”

Personally, I take the findings as a sign that a) my cat really does love me and spending time with me does her good, and I can’t but be happy. But it’s also a reminder of just how many meaningful things we miss in life when we’re busy chasing only money, careers, and success. Time is one of the, if not the, most precious resources we have to spend in life. Maybe, sometimes, something major needs to come around and remind us that it’s better spent, perhaps, not in the office, but with the ones we love. Be they furry and pawed or not.

The paper “The Perceived Impact of The First UK COVID-19 Lockdown on Companion Animal Welfare and Behaviour: A Mixed-Method Study of Associations with Owner Mental Health” has been published in the journal International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Cats love to sit in boxes. Even in invisible ones

With the exception of food and catnip, there’s nothing cats love more than boxes. Big or small, tall or short, cardboard or plastic — they will all do. When a box isn’t around, cats will improvise. They’ll gladly occupy your laundry basket, suitcase, or even the kitchen sink. Scientists are still debating why exactly felines seem to enjoy squeezing inside a box so much, but this behavior seems hardwired.

A new study, based on a citizen science project performed during the COVID lockdown, found that cats will even sit inside an illusionary 2-d box, consisting of the outline of a square on the floor.

Credit: Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Cats are anti-claustrophobic, deriving comfort from being as crammed in as possible. According to a study performed at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, shelter cats that had hiding boxes at their disposal had far less stress hormones in their blood. The researchers concluded that the hiding boxes enabled the felines to cope with the stressful situation of a new shelter environment.

However, even cats accustomed to the environments, such as house cats, will gladly jump at the opportunity of a vacant box. One train of thought among researchers who investigated this feline behavior suggests that cats like to linger in boxes or other small enclosures at home because they feel the safest and most comfortable this way, especially when dozing off. Also, cats may sit in boxes because they are vicious predators at heart and like a good ambush spot or simply because it reminds them of the time they were kittens, crammed in by their littermates.

There’s a great deal of speculation because none of these hypotheses is easily verifiable due to the notoriously fickle nature of cats. Unlike dogs, you can’t train cats to comply with your planned out science experiment. But where there’s a will, there’s a way.

In 2017, Twitter was on fire with posts showing pictures of cats parking themselves in squares of tape marked out on the floor. Inspired by the #CatSquare challenge and lecture she once attended about dogs’ susceptibility to visual illusions, Gabriella Smith, a graduate student at Hunter College (CUNY) in New York City and a researcher at the Alex Foundation, devised an experiment that mixed both ideas.

Specifically, Smith wondered how cats would react to the Kanizsa triangle, an optical illusion in which Pac-Man-like cutout circles are arranged in such a way that they create the appearance of a triangle. In this case, the circles create the appearance of a square.

Smith and colleagues also had to think outside the box when it came to the furry participants. Rather than having felines feel uncomfortable inside a lab setting, the researchers allowed volunteers and their cats to test the illusion in their very own homes.

Each participant was given a booklet instructing them how to print and cut out the paper shapes, and then tape them to the floor into three distinct shapes: a Kanizsa illusion, the outline of a full square, and a control that had the Pac-Man shapes facing outward. The participants had to film their cats whenever they noticed them interacting with the shapes over six days. The humans were asked to wear sunglasses when filming in order to avoid any eye contact signal that may have influenced the cat’s behavior. This was still during the height of the pandemic so the owners spent a lot of time at home with their pets.

About 500 people signed up for this citizen science project but only about 30 completed the study and supplied reliable data. According to the results, cats chose to sit in the Kanizsa square just as much as in the actual outline of a square, and much more frequently than in the non-square outline.

This non-random behavior suggests that it’s the presence of the square-like shapes that prompt the cat to sit rather than the pieces of tape on the floor. Just like the human brain, feline brains are sensitive to contour and boundaries, so they will interpret shapes as something they encounter in the real world.

“To the best of our knowledge, this investigation is the first of its kind in three regards: a citizen science study of cat cognition; a formal examination into cats’ attraction to 2D rather than 3D enclosures; and study into cats’ susceptibility to illusory contours in an ecologically relevant paradigm. This study demonstrates the potential of more ecologically valid study of pet cats, and more broadly provides an interesting new perspective into cat visual perception research,” wrote the researchers.

Previously, researchers showed that dogs are susceptible to optical illusions but research into cat cognition is rather sparse. Thanks to citizen science, research has caught up showing that cats too can be fooled just as easily by their eyes as dogs and silly humans.

The findings appeared in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Scientists have found a way to stop your cat from killing so much wildlife

Scientists have found a surprising way to make domestic cats hunt less and reduce their impact on wildlife. In a trial that involved hundreds of cats across the United Kingdom, the researchers discovered that changing cats’ diets in animal-sourced protein and playing more with them can make a big difference to stop them from hunting wildlife.

Image credit: Flickr / Thryn

Adorable killing machines

Domestic cats (Felis catus) are one of the most numerous carnivores on the planet, numbering over 600 million. The number of domestic cats is so great that it outnumbers the collective number of all other felines in the world — and while they are beloved by billions of people, they can also be a plague on local species when they are allowed to roam free outside.

Unless cats are kept for pest control, owners rarely consider killing wild animals to be desirable — and yet it happens so much it can devastate whole environments. To reduce killing, owners might completely or partly restrict outdoor access, or attempt to inhibit or impede hunting with collar-mounted devices such as bells on collars, but it’s not clear just how well these work. While these have varied success, they don’t actually repress the cat’s desire to hunt.

“Previous measures like bells tried to stymie the cat at the last minute. What we did was try to head them off at the pass by addressing some of their needs or wants before they think about going out hunting. With entirely non-invasive methods, owners can change what the cats themselves want to do,” Robbie McDonald, co-author of the study, told The Guardian.

Permanent confinement of cats would solve the problem of wildlife depredation, the researchers argued, but this is unpopular among cat owners in many areas. Outdoor access is seen by many as critical to cat welfare (although that often puts cats at risk, in addition to the environmental damage). Instead, the researchers suggested prioritizing behaviors that are likely to be widely adopted by cat owners, which would lead to more effective advocacy.

With this in mind, McDonald and her team tested whether something as simple as dietary and behavioral interventions can ostensibly benefit cats and reduce killing, not by directly impeding hunting but by reducing the cats’ tendency to hunt. They recruited cat owners whose cats regularly hunted and captured wild animals and brought them back to the house.

With a before-after-control-impact design, the researchers evaluated two existing inhibitory measures:

  • the first group of cats had their collars equipped with a bell or with a Birdsbesafe collar cover that hampered hunting;
  • the second group was treated to three novel measures: provision of food in a “puzzle” feeder, provision of a commercial, grain-free food in which meat was the principal source of protein, and 5- to 10-min daily object play. There was also a control group.

The study involved 355 cats from 219 households in southwestern England and lasted for 12 weeks. Feeding a cat with commercial food in which proteins came from meat reduced by 36% the number of prey animals brought home, while 5 to 10 minutes of daily play resulted in a 25% reduction. Colorful bird-friendly collar covers also reduced 42% the number of birds captured.

“Our work shows that non-invasive methods, like food and play, can change cats’ inclination to hunt and be positive for cats and their owners,” McDonald said. “Some cat foods contain protein from plant sources such as soy, and it is possible that despite forming a complete diet, these foods leave some cats deficient in one or more micronutrients, prompting some of them to hunt.”

The findings are consistent with the theory that some cats may hunt more because they are stimulated to address some deficiency in their provisioned food, while others do it just to keep themselves entertained. Nevertheless, the researchers couldn’t distinguish specific drivers of the beneficial effect of dietary change. They suggested this could be due to a specific micronutrient or amino acid, but more research is needed to demonstrate this.

Reproduction of natural behaviors in the home environment was also found to be beneficial for pet cats. During hunting and play, similar behaviors are observed, and hunger increases both predation rate and play motivation in cats. The study showed most cast readily engaged with the toys, with three-quarters of households planning to continue with regular play.

The researchers hope the findings will help address the predation of wildlife by cats, which they described as an ecological and social problem. In the US alone, domestic cats have been found to kill at least 1.3 billion birds and 6.3 billion small mammals each year. In New Zealand and Australia, there’s also some evidence that cats have contributed to the decline and extinction of native species.

The study was published in the journal Current Biology.

Cats with round faces and big eyes might be cute, but they could also be in pain

British shorthair kittens. Credit: Pixabay.

For decades, humans have been selectively breeding cats and dogs to exhibit exaggerated features – particularly in their faces. When it comes to cats, the very flat, round faces of the modern Persian and Exotic Shorthair are classic examples. These breeds are likely a result of humans’ preference for infant-like features that may directly tap in to our nurturing instincts.

While it might be cute for humans to look at, there are various downsides for the animals when it comes to looking this way. These flat-faced features, known as “brachycephalic”, are usually associated with a very shortened muzzle, narrowed airways, excessive skin folding and shallow eye sockets. This can cause all sorts of health issues as well as breathing difficulties and, in dogs, an increased risk of fatal conditions such as heatstroke.

But health problems are not the only difficulties these traits might be causing. In a new study, my colleagues and I have shown breeding for these exaggerated features may negatively affect animals’ ability to effectively communicate and express themselves.

Cats facial expressions can change, based on how they are feeling. Their faces may look different depending on whether they are fearful, frustrated or in pain, for example. However, drastic alterations to their underlying facial structure can disrupt the clarity of their expressions.

After analysing pictures of almost 2,000 cat faces, we found brachycephalic face types appeared to display more “pain-like” expressions, even though these flat-faced cats were not considered to be in pain. This was particularly the case for Scottish Folds, whose facial features scored higher for pain-like expressions even when compared to domestic short-haired cats that were actually in pain.

On top of this, there is a huge variation across breeds when it comes to the shape of their faces – for example the Siamese and Abyssinian have more narrowed, elongated or “dolichocephalic” faces compared to both brachycepahlic cats as well as the more proportioned or “mesocephalic” faces of domestic short-hairs. We found the locations of facial landmarks known to change position during different expressions varied significantly just based on the cat’s breed, even when their faces were in a “neutral” position. Issues of effective communication may therefore not only affect flat-faced cats.

What these findings demonstrate is that we may not only be attracted to animal faces that look cute or infant-like, but potentially also to those that look more vulnerable, injured or in distress. Unfortunately, what it means for our pets is that we may continue to prefer – and even encourage – the existence of breeds with serious health problems that may also struggle to communicate with us and potentially other animals.

Such individuals may end up receiving greater attention from us than they would prefer, because their appearance motivates us to want to attend to them. Equally, we may also miss when they may actually be in pain, because we may not be able to tell the difference from their usual appearance. In such cases, it may be better to try to understand how our pets are feeling based on their behaviour or posture rather than their faces.

But this is potentially also problematic, given that we have altered many other physical features of our pets, such as their general body size and shape and the length of their limbs and tails. These issues are unlikely to be limited to just cats, given that other domesticated species, particularly dogs, exhibit similar types of selection for extreme features.

Picking a cat

The value of pet companionship has never been so great. Responsible and regulated sources of pet acquisition, such as rehoming centres and registered breeders, have been inundated with new enquiries throughout the pandemic.

But with longer than usual waiting lists and large proportions of owners admitting to impulse-buying their new pets, many people may have obtained their new companions from less reputable sources such as puppy or kitten farms.

Prices of kittens and particularly puppies remain at a premium, paving the way for increases in these types of disreputable but highly lucrative breeding practices that meet the high demands for designer pets.

Our research shows people should think carefully before choosing a particular breed of cat or dog. If purchasing a pet from a breeder, ensure that the desired breed does not typically suffer from chronic health problems and choose the breeder carefully.

From a communication perspective, it may be a good idea to avoid purchasing breeds with any kind of heavily exaggerated features including very flattened or elongated faces – but also miniature breeds, those with shortened legs or those lacking a tail, for example. For people who already own a breed with these types of features, it’s important to be aware of the potential issues they might face when interacting with other animals and how we may also struggle to correctly interpret their behaviour and expressions.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Pheromones can keep your pets from ‘fighting like cats and dogs’

Credit: Pixabay.

Many times, bringing a new pet home when another pet was already accommodated beforehand is an invitation for trouble. This is more so true when cats and dogs are forced to interact in the household. A new study, however, suggests that pet owners can broker peace between felines and canines by employing calming pheromones.

In the UK, 7% of households own both cats and dogs. According to Daniel Mills, an animal behavior scientist at the University of Lincoln in the UK, the inherent tension between cats and dogs can potentially cause lots of stress to both pets on a day-to-day basis.

“Many cat and dog owners report that their animals are comfortable in each other’s company, but where this isn’t the case, a poor relationship between a resident cat and dog can have serious consequences for the welfare of individual animals. There may be an unacceptable level of social stress or restricted access to key resources such as food, water or suitable toilet areas. There will also be increased stress for the remainder of the family (both human and animal), and potential risks of injury due to conflict,” the researcher said in a statement.

Mills and colleagues are the first to explore the use of pheromones in order to improve the relationship between two species living in the same household.

Over six weeks, the researchers placed Feliway Friends, a pheromone with soothing effect for cats, and Adaptil, another pheromone that calms dogs, inside households where both cats and dogs interacted.

Both products significantly decreased the number of conflicts and other undesirable interactions between the two species. Examples of such interactions include the dog chasing the cat, cat hiding from the dog, or the dog and cat engaging in a staring match. In fact, Adaptil led to an increase in the number of desirable interactions, such as friendly greetings between cats and dogs or relaxing time spent together in the same room.

According to the researchers, unsolvable conflict between dogs and cats living in the same household is one of the main reasons why pets are taken to shelters for rehoming.

The most surprising part of the study was that the dog pheromones led to the most increase in desirable interactions. Capricious felines, whose comfortability is known to have a stronger influence on the quality of cat-dog interactions, had a less sensitive response to the calming pheromones than dogs.

“While it might be expected that Feliway Friends would be more effective in multi-species homes given the apparently stronger contribution of the cat’s comfortability to the quality of the cat-dog relationship, this did not appear to be the case. Our results might be explained by the behavior of the dog being the primary determinant of the cat’s quality of interaction with it,” said Dr. Miriam Prior, co-author of the study.

“We would like to investigate this further to really tease out the effects of these pheromone products individually and also to investigate their use in combination with each other. We suggest that Adaptil may have had such a beneficial effect because a more relaxed dog may be less likely to disturb the cat (e.g. by chasing it), resulting in a cat that is less stressed and more willing to form some form of social bond with the dog.”

The findings appeared in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

Cats can get infected with COVID-19 but don’t seem to pass the virus to humans

Months away from when the pandemic started in the city of Wuhan, China, researchers are now getting a better idea of the implications of the novel coronavirus – not only for humans but also for pets.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

A study by US and Japan researchers showed cats can become infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and may be able to pass the virus to other cats. This challenges initial beliefs that pets weren’t exposed to the virus.

The team administrated three cats with the virus, which had been isolated from a human. They collected swab samples from their nose a day later and detected two of the three animals were positive with the virus. Three days later, all cats had the virus.

In order to investigate whether infected cats could pass the virus to other cats, they placed another group of three cats beside the cages, not administrating the virus to them directly. In six days, all of them were detected positive with the virus.

“That was a major finding for us — the cats did not have symptoms,” said Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who led the study. Kawaoka is also working with an international group of virologists to create a human COVID-19 vaccine called CoroFlu, now being tested.

The findings by Kawaoka and the group of researchers follows another study by China’s Academy of Agricultural Sciences, which had argued cats and ferrets could get infected and potentially transmit the virus.

The novel coronavirus is mainly transmitted by humans through contact with respiratory droplets and saliva. That’s why social distancing and the use of face masks have been suggested by experts as the main way of prevention, as well as staying at home as much as possible.

“It’s something for people to keep in mind,” said in a statement Peter Halfmann, a research professor and co-author. “If they are quarantined in their house and are worried about passing COVID-19 to children and spouses, they should also worry about giving it to their animals.”

There’s no evidence yet that cats can transmit the virus to humans, with no documented cases so far of humans getting the virus after being in touch with cats. Humans are still the biggest risk to other humans in the transmission of the virus.

Nevertheless, cases have been reported of cats getting infected after being in close contact with humans infected with the virus, as seen in the Bronx Zoo in New York City. That’s why the researchers suggest people that have symptoms of COVID-19 shouldn’t be in contact with cats.

“Animal welfare organizations are working very hard in this crisis to maintain the human-animal bond and keep pets with their people,” said Sandra Newbury, co-author. “It’s a stressful time for everyone, and now, more than ever, people need the comfort and support that pets provide.”

According to Ruthanne Chun, associate dean for clinical affairs at the University of Wisconsin Veterinary Care, if you have an indoor-pet that hasn’t been in touch with humans diagnosed positive with the virus then it’s safe to interact with the pet. But, if you have the virus, you should limit your interactions with your pet.

The study was published in the journal The New England Journal of Medicine.

Cats are a bit more susceptible to the coronavirus than dogs are, but you shouldn’t be afraid of your pets

A recent study from China found that cats can be susceptible to the virus, but people shouldn’t really worry about contracting the virus from pets.

There have been some isolated reports of dogs and cats contracting the novel coronavirus. According to recent evidence, cats seem more susceptible to the virus than dogs, but there is no reason for concern for pet owners, researchers say.

“This is a human disease,” said Jeanette O’Quin, an assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine at Ohio State University. “It’s being transferred from person to person. That is our greatest risk.”

Existing science

A recent study reported that after the outbreak in Wuhan, 14% of the cats in the area had antibodies for the virus (though antibody tests are far less reliable at this point than diagnostic tests). The Bronx Zoo even announced that a 4-year-old Malayan tiger named Nadia tested positive for COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, a recent survey examined 17 dogs and eight cats taken from households where a human had become sick with COVID-19 or had come in close contact with a confirmed patient. In that group, two dogs tested positive, though one was deemed to be “a weak” positive, and may have been a false positive. None of the cats were positive at the most recent testing.

A much larger study was cited by Jane Sykes, a professor of small animal medicine at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. The study analyzed 4000 samples taken from dogs, cats, and horses, none of which showed any evidence of the new coronavirus.

So what does all of this mean?

Both cats and dogs can, in theory, contract the virus — but these are isolated cases. Cats seem more susceptible to dogs, but if a cat gets the virus, it likely gets it from a human. In other words, you’re more likely to give the virus to your cat than the other way around.

There have been no cases of pets passing the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 to humans. It is highly unlikely for this to happen, though not technically impossible

If you want to be especially careful, you can take measures to limit contact between your pet and other animals. For instance, if you’re self-quarantining, you can also quarantine your cat inside.

An important time to bond with your pets

This is a very stressful situation for everyone, and while it’s not impossible for people to contract the virus from pets — it should be the least of your concerns.

If anything, we can get a lot of comfort and emotional support from pets, which is extremely important right now. Enjoy your pets, love them, and draw comfort from them. It’s the best time to do so.

“There’s a lot of stress in the world and the human-animal bond is so important,” Sykes said. “We should be enjoying our pets, rather than being fearful of them.”

Think cats are good at keeping rats away? Think again

A new innovative study shows that cats really aren’t really very good predators of rats, and employing this strategy often backfires.

While adorable, these small felines aren’t really good at controlling rat populations — and they might end up killing other animals instead.

While cats may be the undisputed kings and queens of the internet, they weren’t always this popular — and in many parts of the world, they still aren’t. Historically, the reason why cats and humans go so well together was a very practical one: cats keep mice (and other related species away). But in the case of rats, things might not be as clear.

Despite what you may read in some media, it’s not because the rats can fight the cats off — as anyone who’s witnessed a meeting between a cat and a rat can attest, rats are woefully unprepared for the fight, while cats are supreme killing machines. They say that a desperate rat is capable of anything, and that may be true — but even when the two are comparable in size, if the cat wants to kill the rat, it can almost always do so.

The reason doesn’t have anything to do with fighting at all — but rather, with avoidance.

“Like any prey, rats overestimate the risks of predation. In the presence of cats, they adjust their behavior to make themselves less apparent and spend more time in burrows,” says the study’s lead researcher Dr. Michael H. Parsons, a visiting scholar at Fordham University. “This raises questions about whether releasing cats in the city to control rats is worth the risks cats pose to wildlife.”

“New Yorkers often boast their rats ‘aren’t afraid of anything’ and are the ‘size of a cat’,” Parsons adds. “Yet cats are commonly released to control this relatively large, defensive and potentially dangerous prey.”

He and his colleagues took advantage of a favorable situation — when feral cats invaded a New York City waste recycling center, which also hosted a hefty population of rats. They monitored the behavior and movement of microchipped rats in the presence of cats, and they also set up motion-capture video cameras to quantify the effect of the cats on the rats.

It’s the first time this has been studied in such a natural setting.

“We wanted to know whether the number of cats present would influence the number of rats observed, and vice versa,” says Parsons. “We were also interested whether the presence of cats had any effect on eight common rat behaviors or their direction of movement.”

Overall, researchers analyzed 306 videos taken over 79 days, and results were quite surprising: although a few cats were always active around the rat colony, just 20 stalking events, three kill attempts and two successful kills were recorded in this time. The two kills were when cats found rats in hiding and took them by surprise. The unsuccessful attempt was when during a chase, a cat lost interest in the rat.

Even more interesting was that the mere presence of the cats dramatically shifted the behavior of the rats. Rats spent much less time in the open, and much more time hiding.

“The presence of cats resulted in fewer rat sightings on the same or following day, while the presence of humans did not affect rat sightings,” says Parsons. In contrast, the number of rats seen on a given day did not predict the number of cats seen on the following day.

“We already knew the average weight of the rats was 330 g, much more than a typical 15 g bird or 30 g mouse,” says Parsons. “As such, we expected a low predation rate on the rats — and our study confirmed this.”

Ultimately, researchers say, it’s not that cats can’t kill rats, and even that they won’t — they absolutely can, and sometimes, will — but the conditions need to be right, and the right conditions don’t seem to happen that often. Furthermore, as Parsons underlined, using cats to keep rat populations under control seems like a flawed strategy which can easily backfire.

The reason is that while cats may not enjoy killing rats that much, they sure do enjoy killing all sorts of other wildlife, and the risks severely outweigh the advantages.

Journal Reference: Michael H. Parsons, Peter B. Banks, Michael A. Deutsch, Jason Munshi-South. Temporal and Space-Use Changes by Rats in Response to Predation by Feral Cats in an Urban Ecosystem. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 2018; 6 DOI: 10.3389/fevo.2018.00146

Credit: Giphy.

Why do cats knead?

Credit: Giphy.

Purrrr. Credit: Giphy.

Is there anything more purrfect in this world than waking up to the sound of your kitty avidly scratching its paws on the blanky? Now, that’s a challenge. This behavior, known as kneading, is common among all domesticated cats, and involves the feline pushing its front paws in and out of a (preferably) soft surface, alternating between left and right. Some cats even knead with their hind paws, resulting in a hilarious little dance (or is it some satanic ritual?).

Cats seem to do this in all sorts of situations, so what’s up with that? Does your little munchkin think it’s baking biscuits? The truth is that there isn’t any satisfying scientific explanation for this adorable behavior, although there are some hypotheses.

Sweet momma

According to the most oft-repeated explanation for feline kneading, the behavior is a leftover from kittenhood. Even before their eyes open, cats knead the area around the mother’s teat in order to promote milk flow. Once they grow up, a soft surface brings back the memory of maternal warmth and security, triggering a conditioned reflex to knead with their little paws. During kneading, cats also purr, which tells us that the repetitive back and forth motion is actually very enjoyable for the feline.

Some say that cats knead throughout their lifetimes because they were taken from their mothers’ teats too soon, and are now trying to replicate that happy, comforting moment in their early life. However, even cats that live in the same homes with their mums all their lives knead as well.

The rhythmic motion is comforting for cats. Credit: Giphy.

Making Kitty’s bed

Other hypotheses for kneading suggest that it’s an inherited behavior carried over from ancient felines or that it’s actually a way for the cat to make a bed or stake a claim to an area — a soft surface is akin to tramping down grass or foliage, according to this explanation. Kneading may also be a cat’s own way to do yoga, enabling her to stretch and unwind after a nap, in preparation for the next round of napping of course.

Besides making themselves very comfortable, just as people adjust pillows or blankets at bedtime, cats may knead in other situations as well. For instance, unspayed cats have been observed kneading often just before going into heat, which may perhaps be a sign that she’s eager to mate. Kneading can also be a form of territorial marking. On your little devil’s paws, there are scent glands, which release scents when the feline is kneading. The odor is discernable by other cats or pets but is imperceptible to the human nose.

Feline moment of affection — don’t ruin it!

Kneading may also signal that your cat loves you. So, even though it might hurt when she unsheathes her claws and scratches your chest, try not to push her away. Instead, anticipate the moment and pull the blanket over you or place a towel on your lap so your beloved feline won’t hurt you. It’s one of the rare moments that she feels relaxed and loved in her life (besides awkwardly sitting inside boxes), so take heed and let Kitty knead away.

Raaaawr!

Cats are not fully domesticated and would rather hunt their own food. Credit: Pixabay.

Why cats bring dead animals home to you

Cats are not fully domesticated and would rather hunt their own food. Credit: Pixabay.

Cats are not fully domesticated and would rather hunt their own food. Credit: Pixabay.

You come back home after a long day at work expecting to chillout with the cat but instead, you find a dead carcass on your bedsheets. And it’s not the first time. Sometimes it’s small birds, other times rodents, maybe even some leftover chicken bones from last night’s dinner. Why do cats have to be such sadistic little devils?

Well, they’re not actually evil at all. They just think you’re part of the family and that, frankly, you’re a lousy hunter.

Living with a mini-hunter

It’s thought cats were first domesticated some 10,000 years ago, around the time humans started properly setting down, helped by agriculture and animal husbandry. Having felines around proved helpful at warding off pests and, in time, they became affectionate household companions. Just look at how a wild sand cat behaves when prey is near. That’s not to say, however, that cats are completely domesticated.

Unlike dogs, house cats still retained their predatory instincts and have a well-adapted carnivorous lifestyle. To quote William Burroughs, ‘The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself.’

cat

Credit: Pixabay

The fact that cats are so independent and self-reliant, often acting very smug, can be attributed to the fact that they’re not really domesticated. Scientists seem to agree nowadays that cats are merely tamed or semi-domesticated, and there’s genetic evidence of back this up. One study led by Wesley Warren, a geneticist at Washington University in St. Louis, looked at the DNA sampled from several wild cats and breeds of house cats. The analysis revealed that cats have diverged far less from their wildcat ancestors than dogs have from wolves. The cat genome also shows little sign of artificial selection.

Such studies help explain why cats retain sharper hunting skills than dogs or why abandoned cats are far likelier to survive without human intervention. “You don’t have the true differentiation you see between wolf and dog. Using the dog as the best comparison, the modern cat is not what I would call fully domesticated,” Warren said.

That being said, both wildcats and housecats hunt a lot. It’s believed cats kill billions of birds and small mammals each year. When they hunt in the wild, cats will often bring some of the prey home to the kittens. She will also bring live prey to the kittens so they can learn how to ‘handle dinner’. It immediately follows, most would say, that your very own feline is treating you like one of her own when she brings dead animals home. And yes, the cat will still do this even if the bowl is packed with food. Like outlined earlier, cats are far from being domesticated and would rather hunt their own food than be provided.

“They will go out and kill their prey and then bring it home for the rest of the ‘pack’ for sustenance, and maybe to boast—but that is really anthropomorphic and probably not a real explanation,” Dr. Stephanie Liff, a veterinarian at Brooklyn Cares Veterinary Clinic in Brooklyn, New York, told Mental Floss.

Even without maternal interactions, a cat will still hunt and likely bring home some dead animals because the behaviour is hardwired. They’re basically treating you as her adopted family — you’re the poor little kitten that can’t hunt on its own.

Bottom line: your cat thinks she is actually doing you a favor, so act grateful unless you want to hurt her feelings. Publically congratulate the little hunter while you hastily dispose of the kill.

 

 

Does your cat pick up your accent? These researchers want to find out

As any pet owner will tell you, cats are great at manipulating us. They’re good at figuring what we like (although they might not care), they’re good at looking at us with their big eyes and they often change their personality to match ours. But do they actually change the way they “talk”? A team of researchers wants to find out – right meow.

Image via Pixabay.

Cats are so sneaky they may have domesticated themselves, as they became less aggressive and friendlier 12,000 years ago to eat our food and hunt rodents in grain stores, “abandoning their aggressive wild-born behaviors”. Since then, their behavior has changed dramatically, adapting both to their new owners and the new environments. Susanne Schötz from Lund University in Sweden believes they may have even picked up accents:

“We know that cats vary the melody of their sounds extensively, but we do not know how to interpret this variation. We will record vocalisations of about 30 to 50 cats in different situations – e.g. when they want access to desired locations, when they are content, friendly, happy, hungry, annoyed or even angry – and try to identify any differences in their phonetic patterns.”

So she and her team announced that they will start a five-year study to test out this hypothesis. They will analyse how cats meow in different parts of the world, looking for all types of differences and establish patterns – if there are any.

“We want to find out to what extent domestic cats are influenced by the language and dialect that humans use to speak to them, because it seems that cats use slightly different dialects in the sounds they produce,” said Schötz.

There’s a good chance they’re right, because domestic cats meowing is weird in itself. Wild or feral cats stop usually meowing after their mother sends them off on their own. This seems to back up a new emerging theory, that your cat basically considers you a bigger and less able cat.

Since the study is just beginning, we’ll have several years to wait before we can draw some definite conclusions, but one thing’s for sure: your cat’s meow is probably more complex than you think.

How pets make you hotter to the opposite sex

A University of Nevada team, led by anthropologist Peter Gray, tested several hypotheses about pets and contemporary courtship or dating rituals. Their study will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Anthrozoös.

Image via huffpost

Evolutionary psychology holds that women are more inclined to allocate resources to child rearing, while men tend to spend more time and energy on mating. The team wanted to verify if these tenants hold their own in a real life setting — if for example, women are more responsive to the way their dates treat their pets and men inclined to use their pets to attract sexual partners. Gray and his colleagues predicted that dogs, generally thought to require more attention than cats, would provide more powerful ques to women who would unconsciously size-up their date’s parenting qualities.

In collaboration with the pet store chain PetSmart and Match.com, the researchers sent a 21 question on-line survey to 1,210 single pet owners, 60% of whom were women and 40% men. As far as pets go, some 72% of them were dog owners, and 42% reported to owning a cat.

The study found that:

  • 22% of the men — but only 6% of women — admitted they had used their pet to attract potential dates.
  • 35% percent of women and 26% of men said they had been more attracted to someone because they owned a pet.
  • Nearly half of the women and a quarter of the men said they judged dates based on how the person responded to their pet.
  • 76% of women and 60% of men evaluated dates based on whether their pets like the person.
  • 64% of women and 49% of men said they were more attracted to a person if they owned a rescue animal.
  • 75% of the women and 54% of the men said they would not date someone who did not like pets.

The results are supported by previous studies on pets and dating. In 2008, two French social psychologists had a young man named Antoine approach 240 randomly selected women and ask for their phone number to go on a date. Half the time, he would be alone, and half the time he would be walking a dog named Gwendu. And that little gray dog had a huge impact — only 10% of the women gave Antoine their phone number when he was alone, but three times as many were happy to do the same when he was accompanied by Gwendu.

A new take on dating

During the Better with Pets Summit, scientist Sandra Lyn argued that the millennial generation has a much different relationship with their pets than the baby boomers, and the results of the study suggest she is right: men in their 20s and 30s were more likely to use their pets as “date-bait” than older singles. Millennials also reported being particularly attracted to pet owners and more inclined to evaluate mates by how their dogs and cats reacted to the date. Millennials were also more likely to find pictures of pets posted on on-line dating profiles a turn-on.

All in all, the researchers’ hypotheses about sex differences in the use of pets as signals of mate quality were confirmed. Women were more discriminating than men on eight of the eleven questions related to the use of pets in evaluating dating partners. (There were no sex differences for the other three questions.) Dog owners were more likely than cat owners to use pets as indicators of a date’s attributes, paying closer attention to their pet’s reaction than cat owners, and more likely to say that the way a date treated their own pet mattered and to believe that person’s pet revealed a lot about their personality.

The scientists also asked what the sexiest pet is, and dogs win by a mile. If you want to meet girls, don’t get a rabbit, none of the ladies reported them as being a turn-on.

Your cat doesn’t see you as a source of security and safety

Animal behavior specialists at the University of Lincoln found that adult domestic cats do not view owners as the main provider of security and safety, the way dogs do, for example. The paper was published in the science journal PLOS ONE this week and comes to shed light on the mechanics of a feline-human relationship.

Image via meetgray

Researchers employed the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test, or SST, a method of measuring “secure attachment” — such as the bond between children and their parents when in unfamiliar environments — that has been used for years. However, the sample size was quite small in this study, with just 20 adult cats along with their owners taking part.

The furry testees were placed in strange environments, researchers choosing plain rooms. They were observed by themselves, with their owners and with strangers, and scored on their passive behavior, distress when their owner was absent and how they acted on contact.

The cats were more vocal when their owners left than when the strangers did, but “we didn’t see any additional evidence to suggest that the bond between a cat and its owner is one of secure attachment,” co-author and veterinary behavioral medicine professor Daniel Mills said in a statement.

“This vocalization might simply be a sign of frustration or learned response, since no other signs of attachment were reliably seen,” Mills said. “In strange situations, attached individuals seek to stay close to their carer, show signs of distress when they are separated and demonstrate pleasure when their attachment figure returns, but these trends weren’t apparent during our research.”

Mills also added that cats tend to be much more independent, autonomous creatures in strange situations than dogs, for whom owners “represent a specific safe haven.”

The study doesn’t conclude however that cats do not form close relationships with their owners, it’s just that they don’t seem to be based on a need for security and safety. Cats whose owners said were highly attached to them didn’t have different results from the rest of the sample, Mills said.

The authors cite several possible reasons for cat independence. They haven’t been domesticated for as long as dogs and weren’t bred with the express purpose of living in close proximity to people. Cats’ natural social structure isn’t characterized by the same close bonds as dogs have. Cats and their owners generally don’t interact as much or for as long as dogs do with their owners.

“These factors are likely to affect the nature of the relationship that typically forms between cat and owner, and make the formation of cat-human attachment unlikely,” the authors write. “Nonetheless, some may be capable of forming very strong attachments, but this would not seem to be the norm.”

Pause the cat video and read this article: or keep watching cat videos, science says it’s awesome

It’s been a hard day. Your boss is being especially bossy today. You have so many emails to send that you’re afraid your keyboard will break from all the typing.

Or your final paper is due in 4 hours and Wikipedia doesn’t have anything helpful on the subject you’re writing about. And you’ve been gathering up the courage to ask your cute crush living next door in your dorm out for drinks, and somehow he/she said yes. But now your palms are getting sweaty, thinking about all the ways you can mess it up and get rejected.

You’re tired, you’re stressed, and the pressure keeps mounting on your shoulders. What to do, what to do?

Work hard, says your boss. Study hard, your parents advise you. Just kiss already, your friends yell out. Watch cat videos, says science.

Science.

Science. Trust science on this one.

A study conducted by assistant professor Jessica Gall Myrick, surveyed almost 7,000 people about their viewing of cat videos and how it affects their moods, to try and find out why so many of us enjoy seeing the furry little pets on video.

“Some people may think watching online cat videos isn’t a serious enough topic for academic research, but the fact is that it’s one of the most popular uses of the Internet today,” Myrick said. “If we want to better understand the effects the Internet may have on us as individuals and on society, then researchers can’t ignore Internet cats anymore.”

Internet data show there were more than 2 million cat videos posted on YouTube in 2014, gathering almost 26 billion views. Cat videos had more views per video than any other category of YouTube content. The study found that the most popular sites for viewing cat videos were Facebook, YouTube, Buzzfeed and I Can Has Cheezburger.

“We all have watched a cat video online, but there is really little empirical work done on why so many of us do this, or what effects it might have on us,” added Myrick, who owns a pug but no cats. “As a media researcher and online cat video viewer, I felt compelled to gather some data about this pop culture phenomenon.”

Myrick hoped to explore a few possibilities: Does viewing cat videos online have the same kind of positive impact as pet therapy? Do some viewers actually feel worse after watching cat videos because they feel guilty for putting off tasks they need to tackle?

Participants in the study reported that:

  • They were more energetic and felt more positive after watching cat-related online media than before.
  • They had fewer negative emotions, such as anxiety, annoyance and sadness, after watching cat-related online media than before.
  • They often view Internet cats at work or during studying.
  • The pleasure they got from watching cat videos outweighed any guilt they felt about procrastinating.
  • Cat owners and people with certain personality traits, such as agreeableness and shyness, were more likely to watch cat videos.
  • About 25 percent of the cat videos they watched were ones they sought out; the rest were ones they happened upon.
  • They were familiar with many so-called “celebrity cats,” such as Nala Cat and Henri, Le Chat Noir.

Of the participants in the study, about 36 percent described themselves as a “cat person,” while about 60 percent said they liked both cats and dogs. Overall, their response to watching the videos was positive. And it seems to Myrick that what is usually seen as just entertainment may have positive impact on work efficiency:

“Even if they are watching cat videos on YouTube to procrastinate or while they should be working, the emotional pay-off may actually help people take on tough tasks afterward,” he said.

She added that the study paves the way for future research into how cat videos can be used in a manner similar to pet-therapy.

 

 

 

 

Photo: blog.chron.com

Link between cat bites and depression found

Photo: blog.chron.com

Photo: blog.chron.com

Researchers at  University of Michigan, Ann Arbor have recently reached some arguable findings, after an analysis of statistical data showed that there’s an uncanny link between the people who show up at the hospital for cat bites related wounds and depression. Also, most people who had been both diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives and bitten by cats were women. The results are most puzzling of course, and as for conclusions – the researchers only attempted to make guesses in their paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Usually, I take little interest in studies that make a case out of findings that aren’t supported by a direct cause and effect link. This time, however, I’m inclined to be more receptive because of the sheer volume of study participants. The health records of some  1.3 million people over 10 years were peered through. The researchers found that 41% of the those who came to the hospital after being bitten by cats were also treated for depression at some point; of these 86% were women. So, what does this tell us? Being bitten by cats makes you depressed? Being depressed causes you to be bitten by cats? If so, do cats get some special cues from depressed individuals that causes them to go berserk, rabidly biting their owners afterward? These are humorous and, maybe, preposterous thoughts,  but in the end it all might boil down to circumstances.

First of all, numerous studies have found that owning a pet greatly helps coping with depression, offring multiple health benefits, both physical and mental. For instance, pet ownership has been shown to reduce elevated blood pressure caused by mental stress even better than antihypertensive medications. Pets provide social support in the times of sorrow and provide great comfort by always being near to their owners. For people living alone, cats are the best choices to help them cope with loneliness and possible depression, a study in Switzerland found. With this in mind, it makes sense that a large proportion of depressed individuals own cats, and seeing how a lot of women, depressed or otherwise, own cats the current findings could be explained.

The researchers, however, state that it may be possible for depressed people to act in a way that makes cats more likely to bite them. The depressed make less eye contact and cats, like other domesticated animals (dogs, pigs, horses) are known to respond to human behavioral cues like gestures, gaze, and focus. Another intriguing possibility, one that’s sure to causes shivers and fright, is that of Toxoplasma gondii infection. The parasite is carried by cats and carried in their feces. When it infects a human host, it causes alteration to the brain and causes erratic behavior. Infected have been reported to engage in  self-inflicted violence and there seems to be a link between this bacterial infection and increased suicide rates in women.

Bottom line? A conclusion that explains this surprising link between cat aggression and human depression is yet to be satisfyingly drawn.  Still, they write that it makes sense for doctors to screen cat bite victims for depression.

Cat domestication traced to Chinese farmers – 5.300 years ago

This is the cat
That killed the rat
That ate the malt

They say it’s easy to train a cat only to do whatever it wants – but cats have come a long way since their wilderness days. Thousands of years before they were immortalized in this lovely English lullaby, cats were doing just fine alongside Chinese farmers, a forthcoming study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has confirmed.

Wildcat. (Credit: © XK / Fotolia)

“At least three different lines of scientific inquiry allow us to tell a story about cat domestication that is reminiscent of the old ‘house that Jack built’ nursery rhyme,” said study co-author Fiona Marshall, PhD, a professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Our data suggest that cats were attracted to ancient farming villages by small animals, such as rodents that were living on the grain that the farmers grew, ate and stored.”

Strangely enough, this is the first study ever to provide direct evidence of cat domestication. Cat remains are rarely found in archaeological sites, and very little is known about how they became domesticated. Since they were worshiped (more or less) in ancient Egypt, it was thought that they were initially domesticated there.

“Results of this study show that the village of Quanhucun was a source of food for the cats 5,300 years ago, and the relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats,” Marshall said. “Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits.”

Recent studies show that the human-cat connection could go even further, as a wild cat was found buried with a human nearly 10,000 years ago in Cyprus. Since rodents were a relatively common sight in ancient human societies, it was thought that cats were attracted to them, and, indirectly, to humans. However, little evidence documents this idea.

Using radiocarbon dating and isotopic analyses of carbon and nitrogen traces in the bones of cats, dogs, deer and other wildlife unearthed near Quanhucan, researchers showed that a breed of once-wild cats carved found another niche for them in the Chinese agrarian society. The carbon isotopes showed that rodents, domestic dogs and pigs from the ancient village were eating millet, but deer were not. Also, carbon and nitrogen isotopes show that cats were feasting on animals who ate millet – probably rodents, since it seems very unlikely that cats ate dogs and pigs.

Other clues were also found: one of the cats was aged, showing that it survived well adapting to the human society. Another one ate fewer animals and more millet than expected, which seems to suggest that it was cared for, or that it scavenged human food instead of hunting.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Washington University in St. Louis

Illustration of a cougar-like nimravid. (c) thorthebarbarian.com

Saber-tooth-like cats ambushed and killed their own kind

Illustration of a cougar-like nimravid. (c) thorthebarbarian.com

Illustration of a cougar-like nimravid. (c) thorthebarbarian.com

Looking close at suspicious marks and cuts present in the skulls of saber-tooth like cats which roamed North America millions of years ago, paleontologist Clint Boyd of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology found what he believes are clear signs that the animals used to ambush and kill their own kind.

Fierce predators native to North American that lived some 32-34 million years ago, Nimravids are a group of extinct saber-toothed felids also known as false saber-tooths. In 1936 a peculiar skull belonging to such a cat exhibited bite marks made by the same animal’s long canine teeth. Not too much attention was given to the fact, but in 2010 a girl hiking through the Badlands National Park found a nimravid skull which also bore nimravid bite marks. Boyd, who was working at the park at that time, took interest in the find and decided to examine other skulls for collections all over the country as well.

The skull found in 2010. Red arrows show bite marks. (c) MINDY HOUSEHOLDE

The skull found in 2010. Red arrows show bite marks. (c) MINDY HOUSEHOLDE

“Some of the best specimens with bite marks were right in front of people,” he said. “Older specimens did not show the bite marks until they were cleaned up.” Some actually still had dirt in the holes made by the bite marks and others had had the holes repaired by curators unaware of their significance.

“What we found is that these bite marks are a lot more common than previously thought.”

With so many clear signs of nimravids murdered by their own kind there was no doubt that the animals were competing with each other in a highly aggressive manner. Skull analysis revealed another import insight too: all attacks thus far described were made by ambush, from behind. Kills were made either by inserting a fang into an eye socket or puncturing the skull.

Not an accurate depiction of nimravid rivalty. Most likely, the beasts would perform sneak attacks on each other.

Not an accurate depiction of nimravid rivalry. Most likely, the beasts would perform sneak attacks from behind.

A nimravid’s canine teeth were its biggest and most valuable asset, as well as its most vulnerable. If they broke, the cats would have surely been doomed, killed either by starvation or other predators. That’s why there has been no attested nimravid bite mark on its prey’s skulls. Instead the cats   used the canines to tear out the soft tissues in the throats of their prey and would have been careful not to bang them on bone, which might have damaged their most important hunting weapon.

Fatal nimravid bite marks are found on a surprising 10 percent of nimravid skulls in three species of nimravids over a range of four million years. Why? Because it’s worth the risk when dealing with competitors.  They were still careful not to damage their canines, though, since most attacks are directed towards the eye socket. Museums often present illustrated depictions of rivaling nimravids facing each other in open plain. This likely needs revision, instead a more accurate painting would depict an ambush scene.

“It’s very hard to get behavior from fossils,” said Kurt Spearing, a researcher at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, who works on fossil cats and their close relatives and was not directly involved in Boyd’s work.

But in this case, he agrees that the behavior of nimravids is remarkably clear: “These guys were incredibly aggressive towards each other.”

via Discovery

 

The 200-kilogram 'bear otter' is one of several large carnivores that became extinct around 2 million years ago. ILLUSTRATION BY VICTOR LESHYK

Early humans responsible for ancient carnivore wipe-out in Africa, not climate change

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Millions of years ago, the wild savannas of Africa were teeming with carnivore wildlife, much more diverse than what we see today: lions, hyenas and other large-bodied carnivores. Paleontologist Lars Werdelin at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm suggests the carnivore species decimation that began roughly two million years ago can be attributed to the intervention of early human ancestors that began eating meat at the time, consuming both prey and predator.

Over the past few thousands of years human intervention has led to the extinction of a number of species,  ranging from moas—giant, flightless birds that lived in New Zealand—to most lemurs in Madagascar. Plants and water creatures weren’t spared either.Where and when humans or their ancestors began to make dramatic changes to the ecosystem is a matter of debate that has remained largely unresolved.

The 200-kilogram 'bear otter' is one of several large carnivores that became extinct around 2 million years ago. ILLUSTRATION BY VICTOR LESHYK

The 200-kilogram ‘bear otter’ is one of several large carnivores that became extinct around 2 million years ago. ILLUSTRATION BY VICTOR LESHYK

Fossil records collected  from eastern and southern Africa, like Lothagam on the western shore of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya , reveal that some seven million years ago the plains of Africa were dominated by varied group of carnivores: sabertooth cats, strange long-legged hyenas, giant bear dogs (members of an extinct family of carnivores called Amphicyonidae), a leopard-size member of the mustelid family to which badgers belong, as well as small  carnivores related to today’s civets and mongooses also prowled there. Four million years ago, other carnivores began to surface: hyena species ancestral to the brown hyena found in southern Africa today,  modern-looking big cats, early spotted hyenas, several dog species, giant otters that have no modern counterpart, a giant civet and a variety of smaller carnivores.

After peaking around 3.5 million years ago, the number of large carnivore species declined gradually over the next million and a half years or so, mostly because the rate at which new species originated slowed down while the extinction rate held steady. Still, carnivores reigned supreme, and our flimsy ancestors,   such as Australopithecus afarensis, whose brain and body were only a bit bigger than a chimp’s,  where really no match to the great families of ancient carnivores.

A hungry hominin

Illustration of Homo Erectus.

Illustration of Homo Erectus.

Starting with  Homo erectus, the first hominin that actually resembles modern humans, things began to change. Homo erectus ate meat, congregated with peers and used tools, like sharp stones. Oddly or not, some 1.5 million years ago, corresponding to the presence of Homo erectus, carnivore species began to massively die out. Some scientists believe climate change was responsible, others like Werdelin believe early humans had the biggest part to play in this massacre. There are however somethings that don’t add up, despite the timing.

” If competition with H. erectus was to blame, then the steep decline in eastern Africa’s large carnivore species should have started well before 1.5 million years ago becauseH. erectus had emerged by nearly 1.9 million years ago. Species numbers are a blunt instrument at best for tracking the progress of an entire order of mammals over time because a reduction in numbers of one of its group can be masked by an increase in another. If two sabertooth species go extinct but are replaced by lions and leopards, the numbers will remain the same, but the community will have undergone a major change because lions and leopards can take a broader range of prey than sabertooths could,” says Werdelin.

Werdelin reasoned that a better way to measure carnivore diversity is not just to look at the number of species, but on how diverse their roles in the ecosystem are as well. The cats, for example, are highly adapted to eating meat and thus qualify as hypercarnivores. But other carnivores are omnivorous—dogs, for example, will eat a wide variety of food in addition to meat. Still others, such as raccoons, are hypocarnivores, eating very little meat and subsisting mainly on fruits and vegetables.

Carnivore species in Africa today – a mere fraction compared to ancient times

To visualize the  diversity of form  Werdelin and colleagues performed  a statistical analysis, thereby creating a two-dimensional plot that  he calls the morphospace. This morphospace represents the diversity of form (and inferred function) that exists within a group of related organisms, in this case the carnivores that lived in Africa over the past 3.5 million years. Plotting separate morphospaces for carnivores from distinct time intervals and comparing them offers a sense of how carnivore anatomy and eating habits shifted over time.

As reported in a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE, it appears the large carnivore families that occupy eastern Africa today represent only a fraction of the morphospace of the carnivores in the 3.5-million- to three-million-year interval, when species diversity was at its highest. According to Werdelin, these carnivores  lost nearly 99 percent of its so-called functional richness, which is to say today’s carnivores fill far fewer kinds of ecological roles than their predecessors did.  This dramatic decrease began  in the interval between two million and 1.5 million years ago, which means that the process must have started before that time—bringing the onset of this major decline in line with the origin of H. erectus.

Some researchers contest this idea, however, reasoning that H. erectus was neither numerous enough to cause these changes, nor hungry enough for meat (controversial findings).

“Like any nascent hypothesis, this one comes with a series of problems that need resolution. The most significant of these issues concerns the timing of the events described here, both in terms of when the carnivores began going downhill and when humans started to pose a competitive threat to them. We need a clearer picture of what happened and when to draw firm conclusions about cause and effect. In addition, scientists do not know whether hominins were sufficiently numerous and competitive to cause such massive change to the carnivore community,” says Werdelin.

Werdelin believes collecting more fossils from the   2.5-million- to two-million-year time interval or more refined techniques for analyzing the fossils  already found today might help better pinpoint when carnivores started to decline in eastern Africa.

“I hope that researchers skeptical of my hypothesis will come up with some ingenious ways of testing it. To that end, another aspect of this idea bears mention. Attempts to explain ecosystem change typically provide a bottom-up perspective, looking at how climate factors affect plants and how changes in those organisms affect the rest of the food chain up to the top predators. My hypothesis about eastern Africa’s large carnivores provides a top-down view, considering how change in the top predators could affect the primary producers at the bottom of the food chain, such as grasses and trees,” Werdelin says.