When presented with a simple tray of food and a food puzzle that requires a little work to get at the yums inside, every animal ever tested has opted for the latter.
Rhesus monkeys, rats, chickens, bears, starlings, gerbils, chimpanzees and a wide range of other animals are drawn to food puzzles, perhaps because the food tastes sweeter to them if they’ve had to work for it, or maybe because it’s just something amusing to do.
“There is an entire body of research that shows that most species including birds, rodents, wolves, primates – even giraffes – prefer to work for their food,” said Mikel Delgado, a cat behaviorist and lead author of the newest study on the phenomenon known as contrafreeloading. “What’s surprising is out of all these species cats seem to be the only ones that showed no strong tendency to contrafreeload.”
Delgado, a research affiliate at UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine, used a clear puzzle feeder so the cats in her study could see the treats inside. A few feline study participants gave it a shot, but only after grabbing themselves some easy grub first. Other cats just ignored the food puzzle and munched exclusively from the tray.
While this is at least the second study to specifically test whether cats “freeload” their meals, the why of this particular feline behavior remains a mystery. Delgado cautioned against the obvious conclusion — that cats are just lazy — and pointed out that several cats in the study were active and expending energy, just not with the puzzle feeder.
One possible explanation: As hunters and obligate carnivores, cats simply may not enjoy games that simulate foraging the way omnivores and herbivores do.
The study was published on July 26 in the academic journal Animal Cognition. Read it here.
In the photograph, Buddy is sitting on the coffee table in the classic feline upright pose, tail resting to one side with a looping tip, looking directly at me.
The corners of his mouth curve up in what looks like a smile, his eyes are wide and attentive, and his whiskers are relaxed.
He looks to me like a happy cat.
Tably agrees: “Current mood of your cat: Happy. We’re 96% sure.”
Tably is a new app, currently in beta. Like MeowTalk, Tably uses machine learning and an algorithmic AI to determine a cat’s mood.
Unlike MeowTalk, which deals exclusively with feline vocalizations, Tably relies on technology similar to facial recognition software to map your cat’s face. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to interpreting what facial expressions mean — it compares the cats it analyzes to the Feline Grimace Scale, a veterinary tool developed following years of research and first published as part of a peer-reviewed paper in 2019.
The Feline Grimace Scale analyzes a cat’s eyes, ears, whiskers, muzzle and overall facial expression to determine if the cat is happy, neutral, bothered by something minor, or in genuine pain.
It’s designed as an objective tool to evaluate cats, who are notoriously adept at hiding pain for evolutionary reasons. (A sick or injured cat is a much easier target for predators.)
But the Feline Grimace Scale is for veterinarians, not caretakers. It’s difficult to make any sense of it without training and experience.
That’s where Tably comes in: It makes the Feline Grimace Scale accessible to caretakers, giving us another tool to gauge our cats’ happiness and physical condition. With Tably we don’t have to go through years of veterinary training to glean information from our cats’ expressions, because the software is doing it for us.
Meanwhile, I used MeowTalk early in the morning a few days ago when Buddy kept meowing insistently at me. When Bud wants something he tends to sound whiny, almost unhappy. Most of the time I can tell what he wants, but sometimes he seems frustrated that his slow human isn’t understanding him.
I had put down a fresh bowl of wet food and fresh water minutes earlier. His litter box was clean. He had time to relax on the balcony the previous night in addition to play time with his laser toy.
So what did Buddy want? Just some attention and affection, apparently:
I’m still not sure why Buddy apparently speaks in dialogue lifted from a cheesy romance novel, but I suppose the important thing is getting an accurate sense of his mood. 🙂
So with these tools now at our disposal, how much can artificial intelligence really tell us about our cats?
As always, there should be a disclaimer here: AI is a misnomer when it comes to machine learning algorithms, which are not actually intelligent.
It’s more accurate to think of these tools as software that learns to analyze a very specific kind of data and output it in a way that’s useful and makes sense to the end users. (In this case the end users are us cat servants.)
Like all machine learning algorithms, they must be “trained.” If you want your algorithm to read feline faces, you’ve got to feed it images of cats by the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even by the millions. The more cat faces the software sees, the better it gets at recognizing when something looks off.
At this point, it’s difficult to say how much insight these tools provide. Personally I feel they’ve helped me understand my cat better, but I also realize it’s early days and this kind of software improves when more people use it, providing data and feedback. (Think of it like Waze, which works well because 140 million drivers have it enabled when they’re behind the wheel and feeding real-time data to the server.)
I was surprised when, in response to my earlier posts about MeowTalk and similar efforts, most of PITB’s readers didn’t seem to share the same enthusiasm.
And that, I think, is the key here: Managing expectations. When I downloaded Waze for the first time it had just launched and was pretty much useless. Months later, with a healthy user base, it became the best thing to happen to vehicle navigation since the first GPS units replaced those bulky maps we all relied on. Waze doesn’t just give you information — it analyzes real-time traffic data and finds alternate routes, taking you around construction zones, car accident scenes, clogged highways and congested shopping districts. Waze will even route you around unplowed or poorly plowed streets in a snowstorm.
If Tably and MeowTalk seem underwhelming to you, give them time. If enough of us embrace the technology, it will mature and we’ll have powerful new tools that not only help us find problems before they become serious, but also help us better understand our feline overlords — and strengthen the bonds we share with them.
First I’d like to thank everyone who chimed in to reassure me that little Buddy lost his claw sheath, not his entire claw.
I’d never seen such a complete piece of claw come off like that, which is what got me worried. Buddy has the best readers who not only tell him he’s a handsome cat, but look out for his safety too!
The little dude appears just fine and there’s no indication of any injury on his paws.
Which brings us to our next subject: The sudden glut of “sky raisins” for pets living within the cicada “Brood X” territory.
Billions of the large, winged insects have emerged from the ground in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Delaware and parts of Michigan, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and northern Georgia. The current brood, dubbed Brood X, is near the end of its 17-year life cycle, and the cicada’s songs are at their most deafening this summer.
As cats and dogs are wont to do, they go after the larger-than-usual insects, and for them, a successful swat out of the air means a tasty treat.
That has lots of people wondering: Is eating cicadas harmful to my pet?
The answer is no, according to veterinarians who spoke to the New York Times, NPR and other press outlets in recent days.
There’s no truth to the rumors that a fungal toxin which affects cicadas can do any harm to cats and dogs, veterinarians say, and at worst, your pet might throw up the exoskeletons if they’ve snacked on a few of the relatively large insects.
“Most pets who ingest a few cicadas will only develop mild stomach upset,” Tina Wismer, a veterinarian with the ASPCA’s Poison Control Center, told the Times.
That said, veterinarians also caution that you shouldn’t let your furry friend gorge on “nature’s snacks.” One or even a few won’t cause any harm, but making an entire meal of them could make your little buddy sick.
Speaking of meals, lest we judge our four-legged pals for their nasty eating habits, it’s worth nothing that plenty of our own species eat cicadas too. Yuck.
As if Australia doesn’t have enough terrifying critters, there’s the Huntsman spider, a big tarantula-looking monstrosity that welcomes itself into houses.
Luke Jones, who uploaded the below video to TikTok, says it’s “not unusual” to see them hanging onto walls or poking out from behind curtains, and they “get into everything, all the linen clothes on the bed.”
In his position I’d get a hermetically sealed chamber to use as my bedroom, but Luke’s got his own solution: Let his cat take care of the problem. In the video, a woman — presumably Luke’s girlfriend or wife — hoists the couple’s pet cat up so kitty can ruthlessly earn his keep as an exterminator half-heartedly paw at the spider:
I remember the first time I saw my brother’s dog drag his posterior across the living room carpet.
The friendly little good boy, a terrier-Chihuahua mix, had just returned from a walk with my brother. He hopped up onto the couch, then down, leaning back into an odd-for-a-dog sitting position.
Then, with his little back legs spread, he used his front paws to drag his butt across the carpet with a heavy exhale, the canine equivalent of an “Oh yeah!” sigh of relief.
I know there are many feline behaviors that gross out dog loyalists, but thank God we don’t have to watch our kitties use carpets and area rugs as butt-scratchers.
Cats have more dignity than that. Cats are legendarily fastidious animals.
Or are they?
Kaeden, an enterprising sixth-grader from Florida, set out to “tackle the challenging task of answering the internet’s most burning question, drum roll please,” his mother, Kerry Griffin, wrote on Facebook. “Does your cat’s butthole really touch all the surfaces in your home?”
He would go on to present his findings and methodology at his school’s science fair.
Kerry has a doctorate in animal behavior with a concentration in feline behavior that she says she “never used.” She put it to good use for the project, helping her son come up with a plan: They’d use non-toxic lipstick and apply it to the cats’ “bum-bums.” Then they’d place each cat on a sheet of paper and run through commands.
“Both cats have been trained since kittenhood with a variety of commands. They also know how to high-five, spin around, and speak,” Kerry wrote. “They were compensated with lots of praise, pets and their favorite treats, and the lipstick was removed with a baby wipe once we collected our data in just under 10 minutes.”
They tested each cat on soft surfaces, like carpet and bedding, and on hard surfaces like tiled floors. If the cat left lipstick residue on the sheet of paper, it was counted as positive contact.
“Long and medium haired cat’s buttholes made NO contact with soft or hard surfaces at all,” Kerry wrote. “Short haired cats made NO contact on hard surfaces. But we did see evidence of a slight smear on the soft bedding surface.”
So there you have it. If your cats are long- or medium-hair, congratulations. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to have a little chat with the short-haired Buddy…
Feline humor, news and stories about the ongoing adventures of Buddy the Cat.