Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An Intriguing Bit Of Feline Communication

Today I let Nikki out of the spare bedroom (where she'd been convalescing since her vet visit this past Sunday). She is mostly back to having the run of the house (but NOT the outdoors!) with the other cats now. So far everything seems to be going very well on that front...Shadow has continued to hiss at her if she gets close, but there's been no actual fighting, which is of course quite a relief.

To give some background for the video and commentary to follow in this post, Brodie is very shy around most humans (other than me and Matt) but he's a regular social butterfly when it comes to other cats. If you're feline, Brodie wants to be your friend. And he's been trying to make friends with Nikki pretty much since she got here in January.

Nikki, however (being eight years older and not all that keen on other cats even when she politely tolerates them) has not really seemed interested in reciprocating. This doesn't bother me -- I don't see why it should, so long as everyone is at least civil to everyone else. Really I'm just happy to be able to have four cats in the same household who aren't hell-bent on tearing each other to shreds. But it's still just incredibly interesting watching all the intercat negotiations that occur inevitably in a multi-feline environment.

Anyway, I was folding laundry this afternoon and Nikki and Brodie were resting on the bed throughout most of this process. Nikki spent a while getting really frustrated at not being able to groom herself properly due to the cone, and Brodie watched this entire affair with considerable interest. Then, (as the first video shows) at some point Brodie started rolling over on his back, blinking at Nikki, and doing ridiculously cute things with his paws! And while Nikki didn't crawl over for a snuggle or anything, she didn't get angry either.

And then, about 15 minutes later, I filmed this:

Basically the second video shows what I believe to be Nikki's response to Brodie's earlier friendly overtures. They still don't end up cozying together in a purr-pile or anything, and at one point they sort of seem to startle one another a bit...but I was quite thoroughly amazed to see Nikki acting this way toward another cat. (And no, she isn't on pain meds anymore, so this couldn't have been due to chemically-lowered inhibitions). Again I leave it entirely up to the cats that live here whether they want to be friends or just coexist or whatnot, but this is still really cool. It would be nice for Nikki, I think, if she knew she had a feline "ally" in the household. both these videos, it's worth paying close attention to the kitties' tails. You can sort of pick up on varying levels of curiosity, apprehension, etc., just from watching the little flicky movements they make at different times.

Finally, no, the videos aren't captioned, but I'm not really saying anything of interest in the narrations anyway. (I almost uploaded them with the sound off entirely because really it's the cats' actions that are the most interesting part, but there's this one bit where Brodie makes a seriously adorable mew that I am hoping is audible.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Brief (Positive) Update

It has now been three days since Nikki's vet visit regarding her abscessed wound and broken tooth. As mentioned in my previous post about this situation, the tooth was not deemed in need of emergency treatment, so we're going to deal with that when she goes in for her dental cleaning (which won't be until after the side wound has fully healed). And as for the side wound, it still seems to be draining a little bit...I've been following the vet's advice to make sure it stays open (i.e., applying warm compresses).

I might have to ask the vet again how long it's important for the wound to stay open, though, because at this point it seems to be "trying" to close up, despite the fact that Nikki is now literally climbing the walls (there are shelves in that room going nearly up to the ceiling) out of boredom. I really don't trust myself yet to be able to gauge whether the infection has really gone down enough, given I apparently couldn't even tell she had an abscess at all until it leaked! But the area is a lot less puffy and isn't as warm to the touch anymore, and I haven't seen any actual pus since Sunday. That seems like good progress.

I am also wondering (and yes, I will ask the vet about this when I ask about wound-closure again) when it will be okay to remove Nikki's conehead collar. But that's less of a priority, seeing as (despite my worries) she seems to be able to eat, drink, and crap just fine with it on. The one thing she can't really do is groom herself and that must be really annoying for a cat. I might try wiping her off all over with a damp towel tonight just to hopefully finally get the last of the lingering vet-smell off her.

As for the other cats, they're all back to eating normally and are only a tad twitchier than usual. I've started periodically opening Nikki's door enough for the cats on either side to sniff each other, etc. That way, I figure the others are less likely to write her out of the household's feline social dynamic. I mean it's not as if she was actively friends with any of them prior to this recent epoch, but everyone was at least being mostly civil to everyone else, and I don't want to set that back if I can help it.

On that of the really odd things I've been noticing over the past few days is that Cora and Shadow (who are normally "the bold ones" in the sibling group) have been a lot twitchier than Brodie (who is normally the most skittish). Brodie was the first one to investigate the cat carrier when I brought it out, the first one to come out for dinner on Saturday when everyone was wigging out a bit, and overall has been more curious than scared regarding Nikki's presence on the other side of the spare room door.

I have no clue why this is but it's kind of fascinating. Just goes to show you how complex cat-personalities can be, I guess!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Colony Cousin Cats

My partner Matt's parents live fairly close to us (in the same town, a few miles over). Matt and I often go over to feed and check up on their cats whenever the parents are out of town -- and they do likewise for us (for which we are of course very grateful).

It is always very interesting to watch the feline social dynamics in and around Matt's parents' house and yard. Between two and five socialized (tame) cats living there might be considered officially resident at any given time, but the house is also located right at the epicenter of a mid-sized feral colony. In other words, when you see a cat eating out of the food bowl on the patio, he or she might well be a feral cat OR a semi-feral cat OR a fully "domestic" cat.

By sheer numbers, most of the cats that cruise by at mealtime are feral. Some of them only come out at night and slink quickly away into the shadows when done eating, so I don't know those very well. Others come out pretty much whenever (as long as there's food) but scamper off if a human comes within ten feet of them.

Still others are probably more toward the "semi-feral" end of the human-socialization spectrum -- they generally don't permit touching, but they'll happily play with wand toys and a few will even take treats right out of my hands. And of course there's the odd stray cat here and there -- for some reason these tend to usually be male, and I can always tell they're stray rather than feral because they initially look very scruffy and unkempt, in addition to being more likely to meow at or approach humans.

But I digress. The real reason for this entry is because I wanted to post some pictures I took yesterday when Matt and I went over his parents' to check on the kitties there.

This lovely long-haired girl is Toby. She's one of the tame residents -- in the photo above she is rolling over happily on her back to greet me and Matt. She was born right behind Matt's parents' garage and was actually the first feral kitten I ever actually managed to catch. She was only about four weeks old at the time, weighed less than a pound, and had a serious upper respiratory infection (as in, she was literally sneezing blood).

I would have adopted her myself but at the time (almost three years ago) I still lived in a tiny "no pets" apartment. So, she moved in with Matt's parents and was treated for her infection, spayed, vaccinated, etc. She definitely knows who I am, though, seeing as whenever I go over there she pesters me for things she is NOT allowed to have (like water straight from the water cooler tap). As Matt puts it, I must have a sign on my head that only cats can read which says "SUCKER".

But anyway, Toby is a cool cat with what would definitely be described as a "strong personality". She's super affectionate, bossy, territorial, and assertive. I am always happy to see her.

This neat little ladycat is Harmony. Unlike the other local felines, she did not originate in the feral colony, but instead found her way to Matt's parents' via another relative (who developed health problems last year and could no longer care for Harmony). That relative, in turn, had adopted her from a shelter, and had specifically gotten a black cat due to learning that black cats tended to be either not adopted out of superstitious fear, or (more commonly) simply overlooked and considered "too ordinary".

And...having gotten to know Harmony a bit over the past few months, I can say that she was certainly well named. She gets along with everyone, regardless of species. She's also very much a Greeter Cat...whenever Matt and I go over his parents', Harmony is always the first cat we see, running up to us in the driveway chirping happily with her tail straight up in the air.

Initially when I met her I was actually kind of worried about her because she was so laid-back...I hoped it was just her innate temperament and that she hadn't been scared into submission or something. But at this point I am pretty sure it IS just the way she is. She does actually have self-respect, and while she's less nervous around children (Matt's niece and nephew, for instance, who are nine and seven years old) than a lot of other cats I've seen, she won't put up with any nonsense, either.

(Also, referring back to my post on cats looking different even when they're the same color or coat pattern...Harmony is a great example of a black cat who looks completely different from, say, my black kitty Shadow. Like their whole facial structure is different, their ears are differently shaped, etc.)

Buttercup! One of a litter of kittens born to feral-mama Rosie, Buttercup is now nearly seven months old. Here she is kittyloafing in the warm fall sunshine. And to me she does actually look a bit like Coraline here...who knows, maybe she and Cora had the same father despite different mothers? They've both got the huge eyes and the fluffy cheeks (and also the cleverness, along with that Knowing Look).

Anyway...Buttercup is a super excellent mega energetic firecracker kitty. When not at rest she seems to move in an entirely different timescale than even most other cats. She kind of seems to teleport when she jumps!

Buttercup's littermates Buddy (brother, foreground) and Olive (sister, background) enjoying a lazy afternoon. Buddy is a sweet little guy who will very likely grow up to be a very BIG guy. His paws are huge! He reminds me a little bit of Brodie, actually...again I wonder about paternal parentage. Their heads are sort of similarly shaped -- long, yet solid. He's cuddly and teddybearish but with that mile-wide mischievous streak...Matt's mom calls him a "little devil" given his propensity to seek out and conquer houseplants no matter what shelf they might be located on. He very much resembles his uncle Gryff in pattern...very cool marble tabby, which is actually unusual in this colony.

And Olive! If Buttercup is kinetic energy, Olive is potential energy. I need to get a video of the two of them playing, because it's neat seeing Buttercup sproinging around like popping popcorn while Olive sort of waits for just the right moment and then LEAPS. She seems to be the more pensive and cautious of the siblings in this litter and is a little on the shy side. She is also a black cat that looks nothing like any of the other black cats in the vicinity...she's got this elfin look to her and I suspect she'll be longish but not large when she grows up.

...and THIS little black kitten, gender unknown, as-yet-unnamed, is one of the newest feral litter we've seen wandering around. S/he and siblings look to be about five or six weeks old. Personalities are difficult to gauge at this point, but I was definitely surprised at how close this kitten let me get yesterday.

Here is the new black kitten again, eating at the food bowl alongside Rosie (Buttercup, Buddy, and Olive's mom, Toby's younger sister, Serena's daughter, and probable second-cousin-or-thereabouts to my guys). It's so cool how these two are just eating together, being perfectly civil. Rosie is spayed now but she could conceivably be helping baby-sit -- female cats in feral colonies will often team up to raise kittens, and there's certainly more to that than just nursing them.

Here is the mother of the newest litter (the one including the little black kitten in the previous pictures, the little grey tuxedo kitten in this picture, and two others supposedly which I've not yet seen). Yes, there are a lot of black cats in this neighborhood! This mama does not have a name yet but I've seen her around enough times I think she needs one. I am impressed at her tenacity given that she keeps coming back to the yard even though Toby always chases her away when she sees her! (Toby seems to be a little worn out on kittens lately).

I am fairly sure this mamakitty is a daughter or granddaughter of Coal (who, again, is the founding matriarch of the Neighborhood Feral Black Cat Dynasty). She's quite a bit less skittish than Coal, though -- Coal is a "feral's feral", and unless she is actively nursing or bringing babies to eat, she's rarely even seen at all by humans these days. This one of her descendants, though, shows up pretty much whenever, and is surprisingly stubborn about doing so seeing as Toby invariably runs her off the property if she sees her! this mom-cat's face I can see a slight resemblance to Shadow, and to Coal, due to the slightly squarish jaw thing. But her eyes are sort of differently spaced, and while she IS quite on-edge here she also has a tendency to always look "worried" because of how her forehead is shaped.

...and finally we have a closer-up shot of tiny grey tuxedo kitty! We don't actually see too many tuxedo kitties around here...the last one I recall seeing was actually Coal's brother (Spooky, who actually decided to give up on the whole feral thing when he was about a year old, and has lived 100% indoors with a neighbor ever since!). I think this new kitten here is a male but I am not certain...either way, whenever I see kittens turn up like this I wish I could do more for them.

Matt's parents have done a GREAT job so far, since they started noticing cats coming into the yard, of taking the ones they or I have caught in for neutering and shots. Much of the colony remains at large, of course, but nine cats (Cora, Brodie, Shadow, Toby, Rosie, Buttercup, Buddy, Olive, Suzie) isn't a bad start. I would love it if we could somehow get a more systematic and effective TNR project going in that neighborhood, though, to help cats like Coal whose bodies are being worn out by litter after litter.

Honestly if I could have one wish on the TNR front it would be for some kind of "taxi service", where basically someone would come with an appropriate vehicle and help you transport the cats to a facility for neutering and vaccinations if you actually managed to catch any. It would also be GREAT if there were low-cost "drop-in" TNR clinics, because right now you basically have to make an appointment, hope you trap a cat, and then IF you trap a cat, go in and get him or her seen to. Which gets all kinds of logistically complicated, and I have massive logistical fail issues.

In the meantime, though, I guess I will stick to just doing whatever is in my means to do, as a little bit of progress is certainly better than none.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

In Which Nikki Visits The Vet And Her Young Roommates Are Unnerved

Nikki had her vet appointment today. It lasted from approximately 11:30 AM to 1:24 PM, which actually isn't that bad considering all that was done and discussed during that interval. Nikki was quite a trooper herself, I have to say...I can only imagine all the pain and confusion and irritation she's had to put up with over the past few days. Hopefully now that she's had her wound well cleaned out, been given a shot of powerful antibiotics, and prescribed a few days' worth of pain medication she will recover quickly.

The picture below shows Nikki this afternoon, at home following her appointment. She is, for the moment, wearing an "Elizabethan collar" (yes, the notorious Head Cone -- thankfully she's taking it a lot better than Cora did after she was spayed!) and her injury site has been shaved of fur in order to permit better drainage.

The reddish fluid running down her side LOOKS alarming but is actually a really good sign -- the vet was able to clean out all the really awful infected pus, so now what's running out is mostly lymph fluid. I was wondering if they were going to bandage her up but apparently it's better with this kind of injury to leave it exposed to the air.

The liquid also needs to keep draining continuously as the infection heals, in order to keep anything nasty from getting trapped under the skin again. I am to apply a warm compress three times daily and clean the area periodically, mopping up any exuded fluid and making sure the wound isn't scabbing over or closing up just yet. The vet's office was also kind enough to send Nikki home with a container of pre-measured doses of pain medication, which thankfully comes in the form of clear liquid in these little syringe-like things I can just squirt into her mouth (getting Nikki to take a pill is...challenging, to say the least; the liquid is MUCH easier).

As far as the forensics of the injury go, per the vet's observations, there is presently only one puncture wound causing trouble. When I first realized Nikki had been bitten I could see two puncture wounds, but apparently one of them was a lot more superficial than the other, leading me to figure she was probably bitten with asymmetrical force. Not sure exactly how this could have happened, but I suppose if she was trying to get away from something, it could have latched onto her side with its mouth in a kind of sideways manner.

The vet also noted that the deep, infected puncture had actually gone all the way through into the muscle, which was scary to hear...that must have been very painful when it happened. On the plus side, though, it didn't puncture through into the abdominal cavity (though the fact that it COULD have freaks me out terribly to even think about).

Of course the matter of Nikki's broken tooth (that being the original reason for the appointment, after all) was also discussed. Thankfully it doesn't look like she is facing an actual dental emergency...the break wasn't down to the pulp, and the vet didn't see much in the way of dental problems at all aside from "mild gingivitis" (which is very common in middle-aged and older cats). However, she (the vet) is still inclined to extract the broken tooth when Nikki goes in for her cleaning (which will have to happen after she's completely healed from her side injury).

I would rather Nikki be able to keep the tooth if possible just to minimize trauma to her mouth, so they'll do an X-ray when she gets the cleaning and determine at that point if her canine is salvageable. I can understand the rationale for removing it "just to be on the safe side" but I at least want the vets to make sure that's really absolutely necessary, rather than randomly pulling it out as a matter of tradition or procedure.

Oh yeah. And another thing. The vet we saw today was new...the kitties' previous vet apparently moved to the Midwest (!!!) at some point during the past few months! I was rather dismayed to hear this as I really liked our old vet...she was ALWAYS willing to get completely technical with me about what she was doing and why, and so patient with the youngsters when they were tiny fierce fearful feral babies.

The new vet seems...okay so far, but younger, and she made a comment about food that has me a little worried. She approves of Nikki's diet (currently a mix of wet and dry commercial cat foods, mainly Fancy Feast and Blue Buffalo Wilderness) but something tells me I'll be getting a bit of tsk-tsking from her when she finds out my other three kitties are mostly raw-fed. Oh well, I was bound to run into that conversation with some vet at some point anyway...perhaps it will be good to get it out of the way.

Coraline, Brodie, and Shadow also had an interesting Caturday today due to Nikki's vet trip and all that entailed. First of all...apparently they all have very long memories, because none of them have been to the vet in over six months, and yet when I brought the carrier into the living room all three youngsters tucked their tails down between their legs and disappeared into the bedroom! Shadow's reaction was the most profound...he's actually spent most of the DAY under the bed, poor guy. Brodie and Cora eventually went over to examine the carrier, but only when I tossed treats sufficiently close to it, and even then they seemed very twitchy.

Then when Matt and I and Nikki got home from the vet's, apparently we all smelled like the vet's office, because the youngsters were even twitchier than before. They were also very rattled by the sound of Nikki (who is, for the moment, confined to the spare bedroom so that she won't potentially get into scraps with the others and risk worsening her injury) banging into walls and furniture with her head-cone. Everyone was so unnerved that they didn't even really want dinner at the usual time...Cora the Bold ate most of hers, but Shadow still hasn't gone for anything other than a few treats, and Brodie only just ate shortly before I sat down to write this post (which was almost four hours after dinnertime proper).

(Picture above shows Brodie, having finally decided dinner sounded good this evening)

(Cora makes an apprehensive face this evening, as if she still doesn't quite trust what's going on around here. Picture was blurry but it captured her expression well.)

(Shadow was still hiding under the bed as of this evening. :/), yeah, not quite what the cats would likely consider the most ideal of Caturdays today, but I am relieved Nikki has now at least seen the vet and been started on the path to getting better.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Infectious Lessons appears I spoke too soon in my last post in stating that Nikki's leg wound (from the mysterious fight she got into recently with a member of the neighborhood wildlife population) was totally healed. She certainly seems to feel better now and is in less pain than when she first acquired her injury -- like I noted previously, she's walking and running and jumping and climbing normally -- but today it became very evident that the wound was infected, contrary to my prior appraisal.

The picture below is of her upper right thigh area, and is included here NOT to gross anyone out but for the potential edification of any other cat-folks out there who might be wondering what an infected bite wound abscess looks like.

Note that this picture was taken AFTER:

- a significant amount of drainage had occurred
- I had cleaned the area with peroxide
- I had moved her fur out of the way to get a better look at the wound
- I had actually cut away some of the fur to allow for easier drainage / "airing out" of the site.

Part of why I started this blog was because, well, I consider myself to be accountable to my cats. Writing about them, and all that living with them and looking out for their well-being entails, is sort of a way of tangibly acknowledging that accountability. I don't expect to do everything perfectly no matter how I might try, and I think it would be inappropriate to present myself as never making any mistakes.

And on this occasion I think I made a pretty serious mistake in not examining Nikki's injury more carefully and monitoring it on a daily basis even after she seemed "better". I am now trying to read up a lot more extensively on feline first aid, because somehow until today I did not actually realize that the structure and function of their skin makes cats particularly prone to abscesses.

Basically, their skin is very tough and small wounds heal VERY quickly. Which might be a good thing for injuries that are actually superficial, but which makes it very easy for infections to develop and go undetected until they get really nasty.

I'd seen two tiny puncture wounds on Nikki's upper thigh a week ago, but since they weren't bleeding and I didn't see any sign of infection then, I didn't pay much more attention to them. It did seem like her fur was sticking out oddly on her right side, but since her fur is so incredibly dense (like polar-bear dense...she's rather unique for a Siamese in that regard) that didn't strike me as unusual enough to worry about. She regularly creates bizarre cowlick-esque structures when grooming herself, so until today I sort of offhandedly figured the "poofiness" on her side was just a combination of that and a bit of skin irritation.

BUT, I was wrong. And oddly enough, I have to credit Coraline with helping me figure this out.

See...earlier today, at around 1 PM or thereabouts, I decided to brush Nikki (given her astounding shedding prowess) and clip her nails a bit in preparation for her trip to the vet tomorrow. She doesn't mind brushing or nail-clipping so this was largely an uneventful process.

Things started getting vaguely eventful only when, shortly after Nikki's brushing session, Cora started acting weird. Specifically, when I laid down on the couch, she (Cora) walked up to me like she normally does and went to sit on my chest. But rather than settling down, she sniffed my shirt and backed up, almost as if something had frightened her. Then, when I got out some treats, Cora was happy enough to eat them off the floor, but refused to take them out of my hand.

This led me to wonder if maybe I'd touched something that Cora didn't like the smell of...and then it hit me that Nikki had basically crawled all over me when I was brushing her and holding her to clip her nails.


So, I went and found Nikki and picked her up to inspect her. I didn't see anything initially...but I noticed that part of my shirt sleeve was wet. Not only that, but it (and Nikki's right side) smelled really, really bad. Like a combination of...I don't know, rotting liquid garbage and swamp gas. I'd never smelled an infected wound before that point (lucky me...) but as soon as that reek hit my nose it suddenly dawned on me what was going on. And sure enough, when I parted Nikki's fur so that the skin was visible, there was...well, it sort of resembled a crater.

Nearest I can tell, she managed to pull a scab out sometime today, which released a cascade of whatever had been festering under her skin. After doing a bit of reading on abscesses in cats I was actually rather relieved to consider this, seeing as it's a lot worse if they don't drain -- sometimes the vet will end up having to open the wound manually, or insert some sort of drainage tube. And I am even more relieved that Nikki managed to essentially lance the wound herself seeing as I didn't realize something was seriously wrong until she did. to the vet tomorrow we shall go, where hopefully they can more accurately assess the extent of the damage and perhaps prescribe some antibiotics, or at the very least give me some additional helpful instructions on caring for the wound properly until it heals. I am not TOO worried, seeing as Nikki does not seem to have lost her appetite or become feverish (she definitely isn't lethargic...) but I do want to get this dealt with in addition to her tooth so it doesn't get worse or cause her any more undue pain.

Oh yeah. And I also want to take this opportunity to say HOORAY FOR VACCINES! If Nikki hadn't had all her shots (which she has, as have all the other kitties here) I would be utterly freaking out right now about feline leukemia or worse. I know, I know, they're not 100% guaranteed to be effective but they're a whole heck of a lot better than no protection at all.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The (No Longer) Whole Tooth

(NiKki resting on the electronics bench)

So, I had a bit of a shock yesterday upon looking in Nikki's mouth. I try to do this periodically with all the cats in order to keep track of their dental health and check for any issues...and Nikki definitely appears to have an Issue. Specifically, her top left canine tooth (the long fangy ones) has apparently been partially broken off!

I suppose it's worth backing up here a bit because something else happened recently that I haven't mentioned yet...which is to say that Nikki was in a fight with some other animal (another cat, or a raccoon, or a squirrel, I'm not sure).

She came home limping one afternoon, about nine days ago, and while initially it wasn't obvious what was wrong (I didn't know if she'd fallen off something or what), I eventually found two small puncture marks on her right thigh. The area around the marks was slightly swollen but didn't appear to be infected, and Nikki was eating and drinking and using the litter box just fine, so I just did the "watchful waiting" thing and kept her indoors, rather than rushing her off to the vet. And as far as I can tell now, she's totally recovered from the bite injury...not only is she walking normally, she's back to her usual level of high energy athleticism and has been busying herself climbing and jumping on everything she couldn't investigate when her leg was hurting.

So yeah. Let's just say I'm VERY glad she was up to date on her shots. I'm also seriously considering looking into some sort of cat fencing system, because Nikki seems to NEED the outdoors for the sake of her mental health, but it would be nice if I could at least reduce the risk of things like fights and traffic.

But...that aside, right now my immediate concern is her broken tooth. She has an appointment to see the vet this Saturday as I know THAT isn't going to get better on its own, and while she's eating fine and doesn't seem to be obviously in pain, I don't want this potentially escalating to a nasty infection or something (which it could if the tooth is cracked in a manner I can't obviously see). I've not thoroughly investigated feline dentistry so I don't know what options there will be for treatment in, will they just want to pull out the tooth entirely, or do some vets offer dental crowns for cats? Guess I'll be finding that out soon...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Resemblence / Divergence

Prosopagnosia is a perceptual phenomenon in which a human tends to have difficulty recognizing other human faces. This definitely falls into the category of things that I was kind of amazed to learn about (as in, "you mean there's a WORD for that?!") as well as things that I thought "everyone" experienced until I learned otherwise.

In my case I am capable of learning to recognize my fellow apes once I'm very familiar with them, but when someone I see only casually or infrequently gets a haircut or something, I'm liable to not know who the heck they are unless they happen to tell me.

I also used to run into amusing situations when I worked at my last job, as there were some people I only EVER saw in the lab or manufacturing areas. Everyone in those areas was required to wear blue lab coats, and for some reason my brain ended up integrating "blue lab coat" into whatever algorithm it used to recognize those folks. Hence, if one of them randomly walked up to me in the grocery store, initially I would find myself going "gah, who IS this person?" and then finally having to just come out and ask them who the heck they were.

Oh yeah. And when I first saw "Star Wars" as a kid I knew I really LIKED it, but I could not for the life of me tell those two white guys (Han Solo and Luke Skywalker) apart...not until I figured out that their SHIRTS were generally a different color. Seriously. I also spent several years of my childhood under the impression that removing/replacing my glasses was an awesomely effective disguise, seeing as I CLEARLY looked like a completely different person based on whether I was wearing glasses or not.

But! Regardless of whatever issues I might have with HUMAN faces, apparently this doesn't carry over to feline faces. Because every cat I've ever seen looks different from every other cat I've seen, and this is almost always immediately obvious to me. (Any neuroscientists reading this want to take a crack at explaining this one, I'd be very curious to get your thoughts!)

Case in point: two of the three ex-feral littermates sharing my home happen to be blue mackerel tabbies. And I've noticed that a lot of humans persist in classifying cats based almost solely on their coat pattern/color. Several people have, upon seeing Coraline and Brodie, asked me "...but how do you tell them apart? They look like twins!" they don't. Not to me at least. They're siblings (brother and sister) so there are certainly aspects they share in common. But they do NOT look anywhere near identical.

Heck, they're not even the exact same color (despite falling generally into the "blue tabby" designation). Brodie is a lighter/softer grey, whereas Cora is "higher contrast" and has some areas of lighter fur that range almost toward a brown-tan color. You can sort of see this in the picture below (in which the tabby siblings survey the new shelves I just put up in the spare bedroom recently):

These two kitties are also quite different in size, though admittedly that's a lot easier to perceive in person than it is in photographs. Cora is a little compact kitty with a "roundness" to her (which isn't anything to do with weight...she's only 7 lbs). She also has this rather unusual fur that isn't quite long enough to be "medium" but which is extremely fluffy and kind of sticks out rather than flopping over (if that makes any sense). Brodie, meanwhile, presently weighs 14 lbs and is much longer-bodied than Cora.

This picture (above, in black and white), with Brodie on the left and Cora on the right, shows some pretty dramatic differences in how their faces are shaped. First off, there's the ears: Brodie's are more triangular, whereas Cora's are more oval-shaped at the tips. Cora also has kind of a heart-shaped face, while Brodie has a pointier chin and overall a more triangular face (with a squarish jaw...he's got some Maine Coon in there somewhere I think, despite his very short, fine hair).

...and here we have a really clear view of their differing profiles. (And it's just the camera angle making Brodie, on the left, appear smaller than Cora, on the right...again, he's a lot bigger than she is IRL). Brodie has a rather long head and muzzle, almost to Oriental/Siamese proportions, whereas Cora has a shorter muzzle and a little vaguely up-turned nose. Again, very different-looking IMO.

Of course their personalities are also quite different -- you'd NEVER mistake them for the same cat if you actually knew them. But even on the level of "mere" appearance, to me there's just no question they're not identical by any stretch of the imagination. They're both beautiful, certainly, but not in the exact same ways!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cat Cognition Capers: Knocking Stuff Over Edition

Cross-posted from Existence is Wonderful

(A sort-of followup to Cats, Dogs, Strings, and Causality and A Small, Informal Cat Cognition Experiment)

Recently I tried looking up studies and/or scholarly articles on the phenomenon of Cats Knocking Things Over, but didn't come up with any interesting results. The majority of writing on this subject seems to be in the context of advice on "cat behavior problems", e.g., Dealing With Cats That Knock Things Down, How can I get my cat to stop knocking stuff over?, etc.

(Of course, if anyone has any links to papers on this subject please feel free to share!)

But anyway. It occurred to me, upon seeing Shadow (one of three ex-feral littermates sharing my home) push a container of cat treats off my desk for the nth time earlier today, that (if it was indeed being done deliberately) such an action might represent a fairly well-developed understanding of certain physical principles. I.e., the fact that if one cannot readily access the contents of a treat-containing object, one might be able to gain access via utilizing the tendency of objects to fall over when pushed or similarly manipulated.

(Full disclosure: as a person on the autistic spectrum who is also interested in neuroscience and relevant cognitive research, I must admit it tends to catch my attention whenever I encounter what to me looks like an interesting ability or trait, in any species, being largely written off as a "behavior problem". Often it seems to me something is being missed when this occurs, so I'm driven to investigate in situations like this!)

Certainly the standard "I am not a professional researcher, this was all done completely informally, my home is not a laboratory, etc." disclaimer must be applied to these results. Moreover, I am well aware that interpretation is not data (and vice versa), and in truth the only thing that can be said for sure is that at least one of my cats pretty consistently knocks over objects when is is conceivable that he has reason to believe these objects could contain treats.

The following three videos appear in chronological order. All were filmed on 5 September 2010, in the afternoon, within the space of maybe twenty minutes.

In this first video ("Cats and Gravity I"), Shadow is shown pushing a sealed container of treats off my desk.

He had precedent for doing this, as this particular container is the usual one I put the kitties' daily allotment of treats in. Once, about a week ago, I left the lid part-way off, to see what he would do (seeing as he'd definitely be able to smell the treats within). And in that case he proceeded to nudge the container around with his nose until it fell off the table, scattering treats hither and thither, much to his and his siblings' delight.

Now, I am fairly certain that this first knockdown was an accident. However, since then, Shadow has pushed the treat container off multiple other surfaces (besides the coffee table), on multiple separate occasions. "Cats and Gravity I", then, seems like it could very well represent Shadow's having learned that "if I push this container, sometimes treats fall out!" I don't know that anyone in the cognitive research field actually believes this level of reasoning is beyond the domestic feline (I suspect not) but in any event, it makes for a good "baseline" data point in terms of the variables I am interested in observing.

In this next video ("Cats and Gravity II"), we have an interesting situation involving three cats. You may remember Coraline and Brodie from all those string and zip-tie trials I ran as a rough check of what experimental design conditions might be improved so that cats could better demonstrate their actual cognitive capacities in string-pulling tasks. In the case of that set of puzzles, Cora and Brodie were the only participating felines; Shadow preferred to simply watch.

However, in "Cats and Gravity II", you will observe that Brodie "experiments" with the treat-containing bottle but doesn't succeed in getting anything out of it, whereas Shadow makes one single decisive swipe and sends the thing crashing down. Note that this bottle is different from the treat container in the first video, but it is one that I've put treats in several times prior to this, so the cats would definitely be familiar with it.

(Coraline, meanwhile, is ignoring the whole business and seems more excited about the fact that I've gotten up from my computer chair, giving her an opening to steal it. To me this mainly suggests that at different points in time, different cats may have very different priorities!)

And then we come to "Cats and Gravity III". The outcome of this scenario completely caught me off guard (you may even be able to hear me exclaim "HOLY CRAP!" at one point). In this case I took a treat container that would be new to all the cats (another empty vitamin bottle, this time a dark purple one slightly larger than the white one used in "Cats and Gravity II"). I let them watch me putting treats into it, and then placed this bottle on top of a small end table in the living room (a different surface in a different part of the house than my desk, to control for position habit).

In this case, the video shows that initially none of the cats really showed interest in the new treat bottle when I first placed it on the end table. However, after I went over and shook it a bit, Shadow went over to the table, put his front paws on the top surface, and then proceeded to lift the bottle up with his mouth and throw it down onto the floor. (That's where I exclaimed "HOLY CRAP!", by the way.)

So...what to make of this?

Subjectively speaking (yes, I'm about to offer an interpretation), it looked to me like Shadow spontaneously came up with a really creative way of getting the treats he knew were inside the purple bottle. Which would suggest that he's learned to generalize beyond "if I paw at this maybe it will fall and treats will come out" and now understands that it is not the mechanical motion of pawing or nosing that's important, but rather, the falling of the bottle itself, if one's goal is to get the treats out of the bottle. This, to me, seems pretty significant, and again I'm curious to know if there's any literature out there saying one thing or another about this type of cognition in felines.

However, this was of course a tiny sample set. And I did not do this series of "mini-trials" in response to another study I'd be able to cite and/or comment on -- like I said at the beginning, I couldn't find any studies about cats knocking stuff over. No peer-reviewed references = not "ResearchBlogging". Plus, for all I know, cats' understanding of gravitational cause-and-effect is already well documented and known and I just fail at searching for this documentation.

That said, at the very least, I think anyone who really wants to study cats' understanding of cause-and-effect as it pertains to objects in a broader sense would do well to try out a variety of different scenarios involving different types of objects, and requiring different types of attentiveness and planning on the cats' part.

I find it terribly problematic (and this goes back to my discussion of the string experiments again) when a single particular test is taken (whether by the study authors, the media, or both) as meaning something globally significant about a given population's abilities or lack thereof. In the absence of a single task (or task type) with huge amounts of existing data backing up its ability to test "general" cognitive ability in a given domain, multiple tasks of varying attributes would seem to me required for appropriate levels of rigor.

Also, I have to say that another reason I wanted to post these videos is because now more than ever I am beginning to think it is very important to have as much of an experiment on record (for multiple parties to view and evaluate) as possible. Even though I (hopefully) disclaimered the heck out of my string experiments, I still would rather do things as close to "right" as possible for a layperson -- just because I'm not a real researcher doesn't mean I can't practice holding my informal stuff to higher standards.

Finally, I would just like to say that I would be extremely interested to get people's comments on what it looks like is actually happening in the videos above. As in, if you think Shadow is doing what he's doing deliberately, what aspects of his actions lead you to think that? I'm curious about this because I see my cats doing all sorts of things all the time, some of which (to me) look "deliberate", whereas other things they do look thoroughly "accidental". Only I haven't come up with a good way to describe what "deliberateness" looks like in quantitative terms.

I suspect that in general this sort of issue comes up a lot in animal cognition research, which has me curious as to whether there even exists any kind of objective way to measure something so "internal". Behaviorism (in my opinion) fails miserably to account for everything that could potentially be important (for one thing it often seems to completely fail to account for, say, different sensory and perceptual modalities on the part of the researcher vs. subject), and much of what I hear from "evolutionary psychology" sounds like it's been pulled straight from someone's nether orifice, to put it politely. So I'd be really intrigued to know what other tools or paradigms may currently be out there that might be more promising.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Cat-Monitor Sandwich

I've been seeing a lot of this lately:

This being an image of my desk. That's Brodie curled up behind the monitor, and Shadow snoozing in front of it. My whole desk is basically a glorified cat tower at this point. Of course I am fine with this!

"Sorry, A Cat Is Biting My Elbows"

For those who aren't aware of this, my previous employer (I'm an electrical engineer) shut down the plant I'd worked in since 2002 a while back. Hence, 2010 has thus far been the Year of the Job Search.

So, what does this have to do with cats, you may ask? Well, today I had my first-ever phone screening interview. And at one point during the conversation, Nikki jumped up on my lap and proceeded to bite my elbows. Repeatedly. Not enough to be really painful (no blood was drawn), but enough to be surprising.

So there I am, trying to keep up with the interviewer's questions about analog design and decibel conversions (a feat in itself, given my auditory processing difficulties, which the phone really tends to exacerbate), but also having to pause and apologize for being distracted because one of my cats has decided to chew on my arms.

Thankfully the interviewer seemed unfazed by this. I have an in-person interview scheduled for next week!

But what was Nikki trying to tell me with the elbow-biting? She has never, ever done that before. Did she just want attention? Was she trying to get me to stop doing whatever I was doing, as it was clearly making me agitated? (Again, it was my first phone interview and I was straining to parse the interviewer's words the whole time, so I probably looked pretty tense).

Honestly, while I don't like to over-interpret in light of only minimal data, I would lean toward the latter. Nikki is one of the most empathic cats I've ever met.

She and I sometimes get into these "loops" wherein I'm stressed about something (but don't entirely realize it), and then Nikki starts getting agitated, and I'm all focused on trying to figure out what is going on with her, until finally I realize that the agitation started with me. And so I calm down. And then she calms down. It's very interesting when this happens and it definitely suggests to me that cats can be really adept at "reading" and responding to human affective states.

So, while again I don't know FOR SURE what Nikki meant with the elbow-biting, I'm darn certain she meant something. I mean, it's not like I'd been dousing my arms in salmon juice!