Saturday, July 31, 2010

Picky Cat Is Picky, But She Still Needs To Eat!

Well, it appears I spoke too soon regarding Nikki's acceptance of the new-ish EVO dry food (the weight-management stuff). She WAS eating it just fine until earlier this week, but she's been turning her nose up at it for the past few days. She is also still rejecting the Fancy Feast, and hasn't liked any of the other wet foods I've offered recently. I still haven't tried the Whole Foods brand she seemed to like a few weeks back so hopefully I can get some of that soon, though I have a feeling she's just "off" wet food completely right now.

Anyway, the past few days have involved a fair bit of worry on my part, because I know cats who go on hunger strike for whatever reason are at risk of hepatic lipidosis if they go more than 24-48 hours without food. Nikki isn't fat (she weighs about 8 pounds) so she's less likely to develop liver problems than a larger cat would, but obviously it's still not good for her to not be eating.

She had a full workup at the vet's a few months back (they did a comprehensive "senior wellness" checkup, which is standard for cats over seven years old) and all her results were very good (vets often comment that Nikki, who will be nine in October of this year, seems "unusually healthy for her age") so it's doubtful she has any chronic or serious illnesses. And while certainly I would call the vet if she wasn't eating anything, or if she couldn't seem to keep anything down, or if she was having elimination issues, none of those things are true at this time, so I don't figure it's worth stressing her further with a trip to the clinic just yet.

For now I am watching her closely to note any changes in her behavior that might indicate either illness or that she's feeling better. I do suspect she's had a bit of a stomach ache this week, as she's spent more time than usual in the "hoverloaf" position (sort of an elevated kittyloaf, which cats will sometimes sit in when they feel fine, but which is also commonly engaged in by cats who don't feel well as it lets them partially lie down without their abdomen touching the ground)and has gagged even when offered some things she usually likes (such as the chicken-and-fish flavored hairball remedy gel I give all the kitties occasionally).

My tentative theory is that (due, possibly, to a recent ingredient alteration/less tasty batch of byproducts in her Fancy Feast) she went a bit too long without eating, which irritated her stomach, which led to barfing the next time she tried to eat, which led to further aversion to her usual food, which led to low blood sugar, which led to even less of an inclination to eat.

Last night I tried giving her a little bit of honey to address the possible blood sugar issue -- I put a tiny bit on her lips and paws and while she didn't seem particularly enthusiastic about this, she didn't gag and licked it all off. She seemed a bit sprightlier after that so I suspect she probably was getting a bit crashy (something I've experienced myself -- as a kid I would often refuse food to the point of hypoglycemia, and my parents would have to coax me for hours into nibbling on a piece of cheese, etc.).

This morning I offered her:

- Fancy Feast salmon again (she didn't gag, but ignored it)
- Wellness Core Chicken and Turkey wet food (she ignored this too)
- EVO dry food (sniffed it warily, picked up one piece in her mouth but spat it out)
- Purina Indoor Formula dry food (her "old" food, which my parents left when they brought her over in January -- she ate some of this, albeit without enthusiasm)
- Whipped light cream (she ran up to me meowing when I got the container out to put some in my coffee, and happily licked some off my finger)
- Shredded cheese (she ate this enthusiastically)
- Plain yogurt (I tried to trick her into eating this by putting some cheese in it but she just ate the cheese and ignored the yogurt, though she did lick off what I put on her paws -- I figured the "good bacteria" might help her stomach)

Given that litany of responses, I've concluded that she DOES have an appetite -- which is a relief. Not having any appetite at all is pretty bad for a cat, but being extremely picky is, well, par for the course for Nikki. She seems to have an extremely sensitive sense of taste and smell even for a cat, and goes "off" things very easily, so I expect this won't be the last time I'm dealing with a mass trial-and-error session. Of course she is completely worth the effort -- it's not even something I would consider NOT doing...she NEEDS to eat, and it's not like she's rejecting stuff on purpose. It's not a power struggle -- her sensory system is just set up in a way that means, sometimes, there's only a very limited selection of foods that won't trigger a nausea response. And she can't help that, so there's no sense in my getting upset or frustrated with her.

So, for the moment she's going to be getting occasional bits of cheese and whipped light cream, along with as much dry food as she wants (which isn't a lot right now, but at least it's something). I've been mixing the EVO with the Purina Indoor and while she's mostly eating "around" the EVO, she's at least not being so turned off by the smell that she doesn't eat the other stuff. I may try getting some more Innova Cat & Kitten (dry) food again since she seemed to like that a lot and it's far healthier than the Purina -- I've already had to feed her the Purina separately from the other cats so Brodie won't get into it, and that hasn't been a major hassle, so perhaps I should just accept that and not be so concerned about finding a food I can give to everyone here all at once.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Small, Informal Cat Causality Cognition Experiment

(Cross-posted to Existence Is Wonderful)

My post referencing the 2009 cat-cognition study noted that:

(a) Most of the popular articles regarding that study made what looked to me like unwarranted interpretive leaps (sadly not much of a surprise there these days), and

(b) While the study itself read as more "neutrally investigative" and data-focused than the popular articles, it did not seem as if the experimental setup necessarily accounted for feline sensory modalities, and hence may not have permitted a true test of the cats' cognitive capacities in the area of physical causality.

So, in light of item (b) above, and in light of the fact that I had all the necessary components on hand to create a setup similar to that used in the aforementioned study, I decided to see if my own feline housemates might be interested in trying their hand (or rather, paw) at some string-pulling.

Of course I am not aiming to present my own "results" as Real Scientific Data; they were, after all, quite informally obtained from a tiny sample set. At the absolute most, observations presented herein might represent a sort of "proof of concept", i.e., how setups could be improved in future experiments to increase the likelihood of meaningful results. Overall, though, I mainly did this for fun -- for me, and for the cats!


Four cats were offered the opportunity to participate in this activity:

(1) Brodie
DOB: 15 August, 2009 (approx)
SEX: Male (neutered)
ANCESTRY: Domestic shorthair

(2) Coraline
DOB: 15 August, 2009 (approx)
SEX: Female (spayed)
ANCESTRY: Domestic shorthair

(3) Shadow
DOB: 15 August, 2009 (approx)
SEX: Male (neutered)
ANCESTRY: Domestic shorthair

(4) Nikki
DOB: 28 October, 2001
SEX: Female (spayed)
ANCESTRY: Siamese (Chocolate Point)

The three younger cats (Coraline, Brodie, and Shadow) were littermates, born into a feral colony. I adopted them when they were between 7 and 10 weeks of age. The elder cat (Nikki) is unrelated to the others, was born into a cattery, and lived with my parents until early 2010.

All four cats had lived with me for at least six months prior to the experiment, and since the experiment took place in my' home, they did not have to acclimate to an unfamiliar environment beforehand.


Predictions going into the experiment were as follows:

(1) At least one cat (of the four) would demonstrate both motivation and ability to complete at least one task case successfully.

(2) Performance (in motivated cats) would improve when the treats were made more visually obvious, i.e., via use of color and size contrast.

(3) Performance might improve if a less flexible medium (i.e., plastic zip ties rather than string) was used, as this would provide faster feedback to the cats regarding their efforts and would be less likely to induce distraction (cats often find strings, and their movements, extremely interesting in their own right).


The setup used in this exercise was based on the description provided by the study1:

The apparatus consisted of a box of base size 49 × 40 cm with clear Perspex walls on three sides and a wire mesh lid. The top of the box hinged off the base to allow access to the inside. The base was made of chipboard with a white plastic surface, and protruded from the box at the front by 9 cm, providing a smooth surface and good contrast for the strings. A 1-cm gap at the base of the front wall allowed the strings to pass from the front accessible end into the inaccessible part of the box. A clear Perspex bridge (base size 11 cm × 6 cm) was used in trials where there are two crossed strings to prevent the strings getting tangled. Every part of the set-up was visible to the cats at any time. The strings were blue rope (∅ 5 mm), with a length of 25 cm (long) and 10 cm (short). Cat treats were attached to the strings to act as rewards for succeeding in the task. The reward for each trial was approximately 10 g of mashed tuna or pilchards, or a small cat biscuit.

Some articles referencing the study also included a photograph of the apparatus used, which I attempted to replicate as closely as possible given available materials.

Main Structure

To make the main structure of the apparatus, I used several pieces of scrap, held together with blue painter's tape in a rectangular "frame" shape. To the bottom side of the frame I attached a sheet of thick white watercolor paper.

To the top side of the frame I attached a piece of Plexiglas with a grid pattern drawn on it -- however, upon closer reading of the study apparatus description (after I'd already completed my experiment), I noted that the original study had used a plain wire mesh on the top of the frame.

(Image showing main structure of test apparatus I built)

This meant that, contrary to my original (incorrect) impression, the cats more than likely would have indeed been able to smell the treats, as wire mesh blocked their physical access to the treats via the top of the box, but not the transmission of odors. If I were to try the experiment again at home I would use a piece of window screen or similar material for the lid of the box, rather than Plexiglas.

Another difference (albeit a deliberate one in this instance) between my setup and the referenced study's setup was the fact that in some trials I employed a central wooden divider that extended the interior length of the box (parallel to its left and right sides).

The purpose of this divider was to prevent the strings or zip tie mechanisms (more on that in a moment) from interfering with each other physically at all during "parallel string" trials, as I saw the potential for distraction if one string ended up touching the other while the cat was pulling on it, etc. However, in practice this divider turned out to be unnecessary, as when I removed it the cats' performance did not change and the strings/zip ties did not get tangled at all.

Treat Delivery Media

I experimented with two primary variables in terms of the treat-delivery media:

(1) Flexibility: In some trials I used actual strings (lengths of very flexible sisal twine), with or without a "treat container" at one end (see below):

In others I used plastic zip ties modified to include a small "cup" on one end to hold treats.

(Image shows one of the zip tie/treat cup mechanisms employed)

(2) Contrast: In the first few trials I used unmodified sisal twine lengths and simply tied a piece of dry cat food or chicken jerky to the end of the treat-carrying piece (see image below, note the lack of visual contrast):

In the second few trials I used yellow "cups" filled with a small amount of dry cat food attached to the ends of plastic zip ties.

In the third round of trials I went back to using the sisal twine, but attached the end of a white plastic spoon as a treat container.

The goal here was to see what, if any, impact visual contrast had on the cats' ability to correctly identify the treat-carrying piece (thus distinguishing it from the "dummy" piece). One major criticism I had of the original study was that (inasmuch as I could tell from the description and photos available) it did not seem as if the treats were sufficiently visible to the cats.

Since, as I noted in my prior post, cats have fairly poor close-range visual acuity for fine details, I surmised that the treat holder needed to be significantly larger/wider than the end of the string (or zip tie) in order for them to be able to distinguish it properly. I also figured that it would be helpful for the treats themselves to stand out color-wise against the background of their container or cup.


I did not employ a formal "training phase" as the study described doing. However, I did present the treat-delivering string and zip tie pieces to the cats for inspection (prior to inserting them into the puzzle box). During this activity some of the string/zip tie pieces contained treats and some did not.

I also left the apparatus on the floor for several hours prior to starting any task trials, so that the cats would be able to investigate it at their leisure and not be distracted by the sheer novelty of the equipment when the task trials began.


Participation Variation

Of the four individual cats presented with the test equipment, two (Coraline and Brodie) completed various task cases successfully. Shadow was very interested in watching his siblings but declined to participate himself, and Nikki seemed totally uninterested in the activity.

Having lived with these particular cats for some time now I am not surprised by this outcome, given their respective personalities and predilections; Coraline and Brodie (Coraline especially) have always been the most mechanically inclined of the group, whereas Shadow is more inclined to solicit favors from humans (i.e., he'd rather meow at me to GIVE him a treat than try and get one himself).

Nikki, meanwhile, just tends to operate on an agenda all her own, and while at some point I can see her getting interested in a string puzzle of some sort, she wasn't interested on the day(s) on which I ran trials.

I should note that I do not draw any conclusions (negative or positive) about the non-participant cats' understanding of physical cause and effect based on their non-participation in this particular exercise. Since neither of the non-participants even attempted to complete the task, all I figure is warranted in terms of conclusion is that the materials and situation failed to inspire their interest, which of course says absolutely nothing about their capacity to cogitate about string and its uses.

Social Factors

By "social factors" here I refer to the presence/absence of multiple cats near the apparatus setup during task trials. Initially I tried testing one cat at a time, however, for the younger cats this proved impossible. No single cat would participate or do anything with the apparatus at all when separated (via a closed door in the house) from his or her siblings. Instead, the lone cat would wander around looking for his/her siblings, while the sibling cats would scratch at the door.

Once I let all the cats wander about freely, though, the three younger ones were plenty interested in the apparatus and two of them participated consistently over the course of three days. To me this suggests social factors might be more important to cats (especially related cats who get along well) than many would necessarily suspect. Having all the cats accessing the setup simultaneously did make certain aspects of the experiment more difficult to organize but it was certainly a better situation than zero participation, as I had when I attempted to test a single lone cat at a time.

As for Nikki's non-interest in the setup, social factors may have played a role her as well -- she tolerates the others but does not seem to like being very near them. I may try taking the apparatus out to the patio at some point and seeing if she might show more interest there -- she seems to be a lot more inhibited indoors, will only play with toys in the yard, etc.

Basic Observations

Again, as this was an informal/fun exercise and not an Official Scientific Experiment, I did not keep a precise count of how many times a given cat solved a task -- since I was the sole person setting up and running everything, it was not possible to carefully track every variable. However, I did note whenever a cat was able to solve a particular task case 2 or more times, and I considered that to be my basis for "success".

As expected, none of the cats completed a task in which a treat was tied to the end of a string. They all seemed vaguely interested in the strings as strings, but did not appear to even realize that one of them had a treat attached. I expect that this effect was compounded to a degree not necessarily present in the referenced study due to my use of plexiglas rather than wire mesh (which they'd have been able to smell the treats through) as a box lid. Unfortunately I did not get any video footage of this phase.

During the zip tie trials, Brodie and Coraline both consistently solved the parallel case. Their success was independent of "position habit", meaning that I was able to switch what side the treats were on and/or move the apparatus to a different room in the house and they still knew what zip tie to pull on to get the treats.

Brodie solving parallel zip tie task (room #1, treats on left side):

Brodie solving parallel zip tie task (room #2, treats on right side):

Cora demonstrates her zip tie prowess here:

(This one is actually an "amusing out-take" candidate -- I had not yet properly secured the apparatus to the floor before this trial, and Cora got her claw stuck in the treat container after she pulled it out, so we had a bit of a treat explosion! Her brothers, of course, were pleased by this turn of events.)

I did not end up doing a "crossed" case with the zip ties, because I discovered that the ties were too thick to fit under the 1 cm gap at the front of the box when stacked on top of one another. Refinement of this task would definitely account for this issue.

In the "string and spoon" phase (in which the treats were placed into the end of a white plastic spoon attached to one of the pieces of sisal twine), again, both Coraline and Brodie were successful at the parallel strings task. Unfortunately (due to disorganization and logistical wrangling difficulties on my part) I did not get a video of Brodie doing this but I got two of Coraline:

In the "crossed strings" case, Coraline had no trouble with this at all. I don't think she went for the "wrong" string even once. Brodie did not do as well here, however, he has always been very interested in string as a toy, and it seemed like when the strings were crossed it was a lot more fun to play with them than try to figure out which one had a treat attached to it.

The video below shows Cora easily solving the crossed-strings case:

(To me it certainly LOOKS like she knows darn well what the function of the string is, but I am not sure how to quantify this observation!)


In conclusion I note that my predictions (1) and (2) turned out to be accurate inasmuch as I could tell. Two out of four cats-in-residence completed at least two types of task each, which to me suggests that their performance was unlikely to have been the result of "random luck". However, of course in a formal study many more data points would be taken and results might differ.

As for the contrast issue, while again more data would be a good thing to have here, it really did seem based on what I observed that if the cats could clearly see the treats, those motivated to obtain them had no trouble doing so.

As for whether the zip tie mechanism improved performance (due to it being easier to physically manipulate than the string), it did look like this was probably the case, at least for the parallel task. Again, physical constraints of the apparatus prevented me from trying a true "crossed zip tie" case.

Finally, I find myself really wishing there were some way to quantify or better express what looks to me like "purposefulness" in Cora's performance on the crossed strings task. Perhaps, though, the difficulty of quantifying such impressions is why well-designed experiments employ numerous trials through which many data points are obtained, so that one is not relying upon subjective impressions, but rather, probability.

And all that said, I do have to say that trying this experiment (fumbling as my attempt was...) definitely turned out to be highly enjoyable, both for me and for the participating (and spectator) cats. I've since been strongly inspired to come up with ways of feeding them more creative than just dumping food in a bowl, as they seem to greatly enjoy "outsmarting" their food, which I suppose is quite appropriate for a small carnivorous predator species!

1-Whitt, E., Douglas, M., Osthaus, B., & Hocking, I. (2009). Domestic cats (Felis catus) do not show causal understanding in a string-pulling task Animal Cognition, 12 (5), 739-743 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-009-0228-x

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Further Feline Food Follies

DISCLAIMER: I am not connected with any pet food industry companies, receive no compensation for writing about a given food, and will not ever exclusively promote any particular brand as the One True Nutritional Answer for All Cats. In my household I purposely try and rotate brands and flavors and I have no "brand loyalty" other than in the practical sense of continuing to buy what my cats eat, enjoy, and do well on. Hence all opinions and impressions stated herein should be considered the observations of one individual, not the party line of either a company or a group with the aim of discrediting a company.

I've offered the resident felines many, many different brands and flavors of food (wet and dry) and the younger cats have mostly been happy with whatever they've got in front of them. Coraline is somewhat pickier than her brothers and has stronger preferences (i.e., she is a fish fiend!) but she's not nearly as finicky as Nikki.

That said, I am pleased to have finally found a dry food that everyone likes and that doesn't trigger any of Brodie's food intolerances (he reacts to corn the way a human with severe lactose intolerance reacts to milk -- gas, bloating, and a nasty case of the runs). Oddly enough it's a "weight management" formula (specifically, EVO Weight Management), but you can feed it either in a weight loss amount or in a weight maintenance amount because it's very nutrient-dense.

The younger cats all liked the "regular" EVO (both the chicken and fish flavors) just fine, but Nikki wouldn't touch it for some reason. She did, however, like the Innova Cat & Kitten Formula, so for a while I tried feeding that to everyone -- until it became evident Brodie couldn't tolerate it. Innova doesn't contain corn but it does contain barley, and I am beginning to suspect Brodie is one of those cats that has worse-than-average problems with grains, period. Anyway, to make a long story short, on a whim I picked up a bag of Evo Weight Management one day a few weeks ago and it ended up being a huge hit with everyone -- including Nikki! So I am definitely planning on sticking with it as their "primary" dry food (while continuing to mix in other grain-free varieties -- right now they're trying Blue Buffalo Wilderness Salmon).

And then there is the matter of wet food. Everyone here gets about 3 oz. of wet food daily, divided into two portions. I figure that way they can get some of the benefits of the generally higher protein content of wet food in addition to increased hydration. The younger cats have usually been willing to at least try any wet food I give them (especially the boys...Cora sometimes waits to see if her brothers will eat something before trying it herself!) but again, Nikki...not so much.

This has caused me some amount of angst because she has outright rejected EVERY "high quality" wet food I've offered her. Wellness, Evo canned, Tiki Cat, Natural Balance, Felidae...essentially Nikki's reaction to these sorts of foods is either to sniff them and literally gag, or run away from them making grumbly "harumphing" noises.

She liked a particular supermarket brand for a while (Paws Premium, purchased at Lucky's grocery) but then both she and Shadow suffered a full day of vigorous vomiting after eating what I suspect was part of a "bad batch", so I don't feed that brand anymore at all.*

What Nikki does like, however, is Fancy Feast, otherwise known as Kitty Crack. I couldn't believe her reaction to it the first time I offered it to her. She inhaled it, then proceeded to lick the plate absolutely clean! Needless to say, I was ever so slightly shocked. So since then I've been getting her the "Classic" (pate') varieties of that, as despite not being anywhere near "human grade", it's at least a way to get some extra protein and water into her diet. Her favorites so far have been the Savory Salmon Feast and the Ocean Whitefish & Tuna Feast.

Seeing as she's going to be nine this year I know I have to start watching out for (and taking measures to prevent) issues like diabetes, kidney problems, and the like, and everything I've read recently suggests wet food is a step in the right direction as far as that sort of thing goes.

And aside from the issues of dubious manufacturing quality/evasiveness on Purina's part about the source of their ingredients (these are major, non-trivial issues, just not the main subject of this post), some varieties of Fancy Feast are actually pretty darn good for cats from a nutritional standpoint. Some varieties are awful -- basically bits of textured wheat gluten in "gravy" made from who-knows-what, and I've noticed that the "fancier" and "cuter" the graphics on the cans are, the worse the ingredients tend to be. E.g., the "Elegant Medleys" line would be right out in my household, seeing as everything in it contains corn starch.

So, somewhat contrary to what the marketing might suggest, the FF types best for cats are the most unassuming-looking ones, in particular the "Classic pate" varieties. These tend to be pretty much all animal parts and water, with some vitamin supplements added in (always necessary when serving cooked meat to cats).

Yes, some of the animal parts are described in slightly worrisome terms like "meat" and "meat by-products" (no indication of what KIND of meat -- pork? beef? hamster? wildebeest? emu? soylent green?) but seeing as cats in the wild aren't THAT picky about their protein sources, I figure they might be better off with a few mysterious byproducts here and there than with some kind of "oatmeal, blueberry, sweet potato, thyme, and acai berry" concoction as one might find in a Premium Natural brand ("Premium natural" brands can be awesome, or they can be...not so much better for cats than supermarket stuff as designed to appeal to Hippie Human Sensibilities. References to "healthy complex carbohydrates for energy" are a warning sign in this regard, as cats have practically no need for carbs, period).

What I would consider an "ideal" cat food (aside from the obvious primary criterion of "something the cat likes, eats, and doesn't get sick from") would be very basic, consisting of mainly muscle meat from poultry and/or rabbit mixed with an appropriate amount of organ meats, with any necessary supplements (such as calcium) added in appropriate amounts. Some foods do approximate or even exactly match this but they tend to be pricey and definitely inaccessible to a lot of people as they are only available at specialty pet food stores, or (in the case of raw feeding) logistically difficult to prepare on a regular basis. Short version: if at any point you're stuck with "grocery store" cat food, Fancy Feast Classic varieties are definitely not the worst you could do, nutrition-wise.

BUT: all that said, lately I've been wondering if Purina did something to change the Fancy Feast formula. I'm not the only one wondering this. Because for the past week, ever since I got the most recent package of the stuff (a 24-pack of the Classic Seafood varieties), Nikki has been...less than enthused. I know sometimes picky cats like her sometimes just get tired of their former "favorites" (makes sense...I was a picky kid growing up and I remember occasionally getting worn out on any one of my "staples") so I suppose that could be all that's going on, but the fact that other people have been reporting similar reactions from their cats makes me suspicious.

Moreover, the younger cats seem to be eating their FF (or FF-mixed-with-other-stuff blends) with considerably less gusto than before. I am not so concerned about this in their case seeing as they all actually eat plenty of other brands, but I will certainly be plenty annoyed on Nikki's behalf if Purina DID change the formula/flavoring in one of the only wet foods that doesn't disgust her.

And I will also be beyond irritated on behalf of the many cats struggling with health problems like diabetes and chronic renal failure, who have up until now done very well on the all-meat varieties of FF. It is not absolutely clear that a significant change has occurred, but still, I think pet food manufacturers need to be VERY cognizant of just how sensitive cats' sense of taste is. A change that seems "insignificant" to a human might make the difference between a given cat loving a food and deciding it's fit for litter-box burial.

So, as I continue to await further news of what the F is going on with the Fancy Feast Formula, I will certainly continue to experiment with other food brands and flavors. I got a somewhat promising result with the Whole Foods 360 store brand of cat food (ocean fish and tuna flavor) -- Nikki has eaten nearly two cans of this with reasonable enthusiasm, so I may get some more of that to make sure it wasn't just a fluke!

* Yes, I did contact the manufacturer of this supermarket brand, describe the symptoms, and give them the batch number, etc. I was told several weeks later via a letter they had "tested the batch and found no evidence the food was responsible for [my] pets' illness". But who knows what exactly they tested FOR. In any case, I figured that it made the most sense to just not feed that brand anymore, so I don't. One midnight trip to the emergency vet was enough!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Shadow and Cora Meowing

All four cats here can be very chatty at times, and the three younger ones seem to be getting talkier by the day! Nikki, being Siamese, can of course be quite loud when she really needs to emphasize a point, but these days she isn't the most frequent meower -- that title currently goes to Shadow, who seems to have appointed himself spokescat for the household.

Anyway, I have been trying for a while now to get a video (with audio) of Shadow's meowing. He has a very...unique sound. I have never in my life encountered a cat who sounds quite like he does. His meow is sort of this adorably discordant squeak-yell, combined with the occasional "disappointed R2-D2" sound. Of course I take his communications seriously and always try to figure out what he is trying to say, but it is pretty clear that sometimes he just wants acknowledgment. E.g., part of the reason I haven't been able to get a very good recording of his meyowling until now is because he tends to stop talking as soon as he sees me pointing the camera at him!

But I digress. Below is a video that includes some decent samples of Shadow's very interesting meyowl-squeak-nrrrrr sounds. Cora also pipes up a few times with her little "pleeeeeease!" howl -- both kitties were pleading with me to let them out onto the patio.

Also in addition to the meowing, this video includes some really cool instances of Catspeak body language between these two littermates. There's a really neat "hey sis", "hey bro", "what's up?" head-nose-rub thing partway through.

EDIT: The Siamese cat in this video (which I found randomly on Youtube):

...sounds a bit like Shadow. Similar inflection. I've always thought Shadow sounded a little Siamese-ish but I've also met a lot of Siamese cats who have a much deeper voice. Like many things I'm sure it depends on the individual cat, and with feral-born "mutts" like my younger three you never know what interesting genetics might have gotten into the mix!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Not Just About The Food

Over at Way Of Cats, there is a post entitled The Meaning of Mealtime. I really like this post; it very closely matches my own sentiments on the subject, which is to say that like the author, I am really irked when people go around saying things like "oh, cats only [seem to] love you because you're a food source". Quoting briefly:

We should never feel that our cats only love us at mealtimes, or have their interest in us dependent on their dependence. Cats have two reasons for being so excited about food.

One is the strong survival drive we share; food is a necessary part of living. Eating tasty food will always make them happy.

The other is that they feel we must care as much as they do.

That makes them just as happy.

The key thing here for me is the bit about cats' interest in relationships (with humans, or with other cats or animals for that matter) not being dependent on their 'dependence'. I ran into this notion a lot back when I first adopted Coraline, Brodie, and Shadow. Since they were born and raised completely feral (no human contact or handling) until the day I took them home with me from their outdoor colony I knew they would not be snuggling up into my lap right away (or possibly ever). Which of course I was fine with. My main priority in adopting them was to give them a home they could thrive and be happy in.

So, I read a lot about feral kittens, hoping to get some guidelines that could help me figure out how to provide them with a place they felt safe and comfortable in. A lot of these resources were helpful in many ways. However, one thing I found a little unnerving about even some very practical "Kitten Socialization Guidelines" was the way they all seemed to suggest that you had to sort of bribe the kittens with food in order to "tame" them.

Something about that just rubbed me the wrong way, so to speak. I have never liked the concept of "taming" in the first place, at least not to the extent that it implies submission. I am painfully aware I have a lot of power over my cats, but this is not something I enjoy. Consequently I would feel very uncomfortable "taking credit" for their current or future human-friendliness (which varies according to the individual cat, the day of the week, etc.). Of course I offered the kittens food when they arrived, but this was never done in a "I'll bribe you to love me" sense. I did NOT want a bunch of cats with Stockholm Syndrome running around -- I wanted the choice to approach me or my partner or any visitors to be theirs.

So? There was definitely some "kitten socialization guidelines" I did NOT follow. I did NOT withhold food for hours and hours so they would "have" to come to me physically to eat. Initially, Coraline and Brodie did not want to eat at all unless Matt and I were either out of the room or lying in bed. I did offer them bits of baby food on a spoon between regular meals, and they varied in their responses to this, but to me this was not about getting them to "associate me with a pleasurable stimulus" but rather about sharing as a gesture of friendship. Many animals share food to demonstrate trust and friendly intentions, so this is more along the lines of what I was thinking.

As for Shadow, initially he was so scared he did not touch any food for nearly two days. When I realized he (unlike his siblings) was not eating when we were out of the room, I figured I would try hand-feeding him, as I did not want him to get liver problems or anything (which cats can get if they don't eat for too long). And in Shadow's case he actually did take food from my hand almost immediately. Matter of fact, for his first week here he would only eat off my hand, or at the very least when he could see me. It was almost as if he didn't feel safe eating unless someone else was there, and he didn't care whether that "someone" was human or feline. Whereas his siblings would eat in front of each other, but not me and Matt initially.

Anyway, that was all a bit tangential, but my point is that while nowadays I certainly see a lot of excitement at mealtime (I must upload a video of the Morning Meow Chorus soon!) it does not seem like they're just after food. Sometimes they want to play, other times they want to nap curled up with someone, and still other times they simply want to be acknowledged. And beyond these generic categories they have their own individual preferences and favorite games, etc., as well, and each has his or her own way of communicating specifics.

I encourage this, of course. I want them all to feel comfortable having their own minds and ideas about life, their own agendas. I do realize they depend on me for some things, but the idea of either trying to cultivate "dependence" (in the emotional sense) or presuming that they only would ever hang around anyone else because of said dependence fills me with a kind of sickening dread.

[This sort of thing does not just apply to food-related matters, either. Another guideline I did not follow (popular in kitten-socialization manuals) was to separate siblings "so they will be forced to depend on you" (see a theme here?).

Coraline and Brodie cried whenever they couldn't see each other during their first few weeks here, and gah, there was just no way I could ignore or disregard that. I figured they had enough stress in their lives without having to endure forced separation!

And Shadow was still with MomCat at that point, so he was not alone, and when I finally brought him home three weeks later I only kept him apart from his littermates until he'd seen the vet and gotten flea treatments, etc. (which worked out to being maybe 4 days).]

Of course there ARE times when I have used food as a tool to "get the cats to do something" -- see my last post, for instance, on tossing treats into the house in order to get a herd of escaped kitties back into the kitchen before leaving home myself. But that has nothing to do with trying to foster dependence -- but rather (in that case) with safety. Moreover, the cats had already been fed their wet food that morning, less than an hour prior to their patio excursion, so they were not starving!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Escape Artists

Since adopting the Formerly Feral Trio (i.e., Coraline, Brodie, and Shadow) I've had countless scary dreams in which all of them somehow manage to escape the house. But until this past Thursday this never happened in real life.

Before going further I should of course note that nobody disappeared or came to any harm during this brief but intense adventure.

So what exactly happened? Well, firstly I should point out a few things about the kitchen here. There are two doors to the outside: one with a "security"-type screen behind the solid door, and one sliding glass door with a standard-issue screen behind it. Both doors lead to the back yard. The sliding glass door locks and latches just fine, but the sliding screen door does not. Nevertheless, until yesterday I had seen the cats climbing the screen but not, you know, actually operating the door. I mean yes I'd seen Cora jumping at the handle of the glass slider but as occurs in many such cases, her tremendous mechanical intelligence was thwarted by lack of opposable thumbs. I learned yesterday, you don't need a handle to work a screen door that doesn't latch right. All you need is motivation and a nice sharp set of claws!

It was early morning. Matt was getting ready for work and I was preparing to take the bus to the biotech lab I volunteer at (yep, I'm still job-searching). I had opened the glass slider to look at the vegetable garden (and my catnip plants!) and then went to brush my teeth or something of that nature.

When I returned to the main living area (the living room and kitchen are all sort of one big room, yay midcentury open floorplans!) I noticed it was quiet...too quiet. Then I happened to glance out to the patio and saw Cora there, sniffing nonchalantly at the ground. "Ack!" I thought. But I was not really wigged yet at that point, because Cora knows the yard pretty well. But THEN I looked past Cora and saw...Brodie. Blinking up at me with what can only be described as a "deer in headlights" look. I did not see Shadow at first but within seconds of seeing Brodie, Shadow poked his head from behind a bush.

Then I saw the "evidence" that had led to this whole situation -- the screen door was open just enough for a cat (or three of them) to squeeze through. And I knew I hadn't left it open...THAT I am very careful about.

Quickly I mentally resigned myself to possibly being late for lab. I was especially concerned about Brodie. Cora and Shadow have both been out in the yard with me (sans harness, but under close supervision) a few times, and both have stayed in the garden and not seemed particularly jumpy about neighbors' lawnmower sounds and dogs barking and whatnot. Brodie, however, is still working on harness acclimation, so to just see him sitting there in the yard really threw me a bit

BUT! As it turned out, it only ended up taking me TWO MINUTES to literally herd all three youngsters into the house. I just opened the screen door as wide as it would go and tossed a few pieces of dry food (which they all love; I've been trying to feed them more wet but still they get a few grain-free crunchies every day) into the kitchen. In they all went, trotting merrily in single file. It was quite a sight to behold! And quite a relief that nobody got spooked enough to disappear.

Needless to say, after this I will DEFINITELY be keeping the glass door closed on the slider whenever I can't be right there to watch it!

Oh, and as for who the culprit was? The cats aren't telling, but I strongly suspect Cora did it first. Shadow showed me today he could operate the screen too, though, so who knows for certain.