Category: research

Ever Wondered How Many Surfaces Your Cat’s Butt Touches? A Kid Has The Answer

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.

The results?

“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…catbuttproject

Can You Tell The Real Cats From The Computer-Generated Kitties?

There’s a new tool that uses algorithmic artificial intelligence to create random images of cats, and the results are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.

Can you tell which cats are real and which ones are computer-generated? (Kindly share your answers in the comments, numbering them from left to right. The person with the best score gets bragging rights!)

We’ll follow up with the answers after everyone’s had a day to make their guesses or informed choices, as it were.

The algorithm was created by a process called machine learning, which you’ve probably heard at some point even if you haven’t sought out information about artificial intelligence. 

In simple terms, machine learning means the creators fed massive amounts of data — millions of photos of cats — to the software algorithm. The algorithm analyzes the data and learns how patterns in the data create accurate images of felines.

Crucially, the algorithm never learns what a cat actually is. It doesn’t know a cat is an animal in the real world. It doesn’t know what the real world is, and it doesn’t know what animals are. All it knows is that data, organized a certain way, produces images that look like the photos it’s been fed.

That’s a key difference because, while we have made huge strides with machine learning, that’s not the kind of artificial intelligence the Elon Musks of the world freak out about when they smoke pot and watch The Matrix. We’ll never have to worry about our cat-generating algorithms rising up and eliminating humanity. 🙂

Artificial general intelligence — or AGI — is the potentially dangerous form of AI, but that’s a whole other piece of business: It involves recreating consciousness and the mind on a machine substrate.

We can’t even define consciousness and we know shockingly little about how the brain works, so that’s not happening any time soon. And even if we could it off, there’s a growing body of evidence supporting the concept of embodied cognition. That’s the idea that the mind cannot be separate from the brain, and the brain cannot be separate from the body, as well as a recognition that everything from pain signals to gut flora has an effect on our cognitive routines.

The bottom line: “AI” can get pretty good at making pictures of cats, but it’s not taking over the world any time soon.

Study: Cats Will Happily Accept Food From Jerks

Taking studies designed for children and dogs and applying them to cats has been all the rage lately after a series of studies yielded new insights about the way cats bond with their humans.

Earlier studies showed cats, like kids and dogs, look to their humans for reassurance in strange situations and derive comfort from the latter’s presence. Likewise, they’re less confident if they’re forced to face unknown situations without the “security blanket” of their big buddies nearby.

Now a research team in Kyoto has taken another study designed for dogs — known as the “helpful stranger” study — and placed cats in the same situation to find out how they react.

Sure, I'll Take A Treat!
A new study shows cats don’t discriminate when it comes to who’s giving them food.

Both humans and dogs show a preference for what researchers call “prosocial individuals.” In plain language, it means they pay attention to the way strangers treat the people they care about. A dog who sees a stranger respond negatively to its caretaker will avoid the stranger, even if the latter is waving a delicious treat.

In the study, cats watch their owners try to open a box while two strangers are present:

“[C]ats watched as their owner first tried unsuccessfully to open a transparent container to take out an object, and then requested help from a person sitting nearby. In the Helper condition, this second person (helper) helped the owner to open the container, whereas in the Non-Helper condition the actor refused to help, turning away instead. A third, passive (neutral) person sat on the other side of the owner in both conditions.

After the interaction, the actor and the neutral person each offered a piece of food to the cat, and we recorded which person the cat took food from. Cats completed four trials and showed neither a preference for the helper nor avoidance of the non-helper.”

At first glance it looks like cats really don’t care if a person is helpful or friendly toward their “owners.” If a person is offering them yums, why shouldn’t they take them?

That sounds like exactly the sort of thing cats would do, but the research team says we should hold off on judging our food-loving feline friends. It may be that cats simply don’t understand that the stranger(s) aren’t being helpful. After all, if your cat sees you struggling with a package, does she offer to help?

If it is true, it’s not necessarily cats’ fault: We’ve long known they aren’t as well-attuned to human social cues as dogs are, a fact that can be attributed to their route to domestication. There simply wasn’t any reason to carefully breed cats to pick up on those cues, as we did historically with dogs, because cats were already wildly successful at their primary job, which was rodent extermination. Taking on cuddle and companionship duties didn’t happen until later when people began to value the little ones for more than their sharp claws and teeth.

“We consider that cats might not possess the same social evaluation abilities as dogs, at least in this situation, because unlike the latter, they have not been selected to cooperate with humans,” the scientists wrote.

The research team says the results are suggestive, but more studies should be done before drawing any real conclusions about our furry friends. Knowing cats often get a bad rep due to stereotypes and misunderstandings, we agree.

New App Translates Your Cat’s Meows

It’s gonna be the future soon, and I can’t wait!

It was only a matter of time before someone leveraged machine learning and algorithmic AI to parse cat vocalizations, and thanks to Javier Sanchez, translating your cat’s meows — and trills, huffs and chirps — is now a reality.

Sanchez was a member of Amazon’s machine learning team contributing to the development of Alexa, the now-ubiquitous virtual assistant operated by voice commands.

“I got to see how the sausage was made, how they train their models and work with all the data science platforms,” Sanchez said. “So I was fresh off the heels of that and I was thinking, ‘Well, we could do something similar with cats and it could be an app.’”

javiersanchezcat
Sanchez with his cat.

Sanchez’s new employers at the tech firm Akvelon saw promise in the idea and gave him the green light.

The resulting app, MeowTalk, is now available on iOS and Android.

There are two layers to the concept: The first one involves nine or 10 “intents” common to all or most cats. They include vocalizations for “Feed me,” “Hey human!”, “Let me out,” and “Pay attention to me,” among others.

Sanchez didn’t guess or intuit the meanings — they’re based on research by a team at the University of Milan, who built a data set of cat vocalizations by attaching tiny microphones to cats and recording everything the fluffsters say. Each feline utterance was analyzed and catalogued by frequency, rhythmic quality and context, among other traits.

Screenshot_2020-11-12 Automatic Classification of Cat Vocalizations Emitted in Different Contexts
Two cats who participated in the University of Milan study: Note the small black microphones on their collars.

The second layer is where it starts to get really interesting: By using MeowTalk like Shazam, the app will start recording your cat’s particular trills, chirps and meows and — with your help — eventually piece together what they mean.

As with dictation software and machine learning in general, the more data the app gets, the better its translations become.

This is important because, while cats share many sounds, each cat develops its own unique vocalizations:

With MeowTalk, you can create a profile for your cat and start using its auto-recognition to translate your cat’s meows and start mapping its language. While some translations are built-in and inherent to the app, translations specific to your cat require you to train the app to recognize your cat’s specific vocabulary and intentions. Translations you deem to be incorrect can be corrected via the app. MeowTalk is not static; instead it learns and evolves with each translation that you confirm, adding to its corpus, just as we would add new words into our own memory banks or language processing programs.

At the same time thousands of other cat owners are also using the app, feeding the algorithm more data, which the app uses to improve itself. Development is ongoing, with future changes reflective of user (and cat) feedback.

“A tool like this can help certain people bond even more with their cats, especially if they can’t be in contact with other people on a regular basis,” Sanchez said. “So this could be a real game changer for a key demographic that have cats.”

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MeowTalk’s user interface.

Applying what they’re learning via the app, Sanchez and his team are also working toward their next goal: Giving your cat a human voice. They’re developing a small device that clips on a cat’s collar and translates meows into human speech in real time.

That tech has the potential to give me nightmares. Imagine Buddy having a human voice and saying “Gimme snacks now, servant!” “Open the door, butler!” “You’re 23 seconds late with dinner!”

Maybe I’ll pass on the collar device. In the meantime I plan to download the iOS version of MeowTalk and give it a spin. I’ll report back in a week or two after giving it some time to adjust to the Budster. If any of our readers give it a shot, we’d like to hear your impressions as well.

superhandsomebuddy1
Did you know? The Buddinese language includes 22 separate words for “jerk” and 37 different ways of demanding food.

Study: There Are 5 Types Of Cat Owners

When it comes to attitudes about hunting and impact on local wildlife, there are five broad categories of cat owners, a new study says.

Four out of the five aren’t particularly worried about their cats killing birds and small mammals, the University of Exeter researchers wrote in the study, which was published in Frontiers In Ecology and the Environment, a research journal.

  1. Concerned Protector. These are people who keep their cats indoors to keep them safe from the world. Their main worries are cats being stolen, lost or killed. They don’t have strong feelings about hunting behaviour and wouldn’t keep their cats indoors solely to stop them hunting.
  2. Freedom Defenders believe cats should be able to roam where they please, like wild animals. Cats hunting is a good sign of normal behaviour and helps control the rodent population. They oppose any restrictions of cat access to the outdoors.
  3. Tolerant Guardians believe that the benefits of roaming outweigh the risks of the cat being injured or lost. They love wildlife and cat hunting is the least attractive part of cat ownership, but it is just what cats do. They’re not sure how cat owners can effectively reduce hunting behaviour.
  4. Conscientious Caretakers believe cats should have access to the outdoors but they don’t oppose some containment. Hunting by cats really bothers them, and they particularly worry about birds. They believe owners should have have some responsibility managing their cat’s hunting behaviour.
  5. Lasseiz-faire landlords believes it’s natural for cats to want to go out into the natural world and if they fall foul of it (dogs, bigger cats, SUVs) that’s natural too. They’ve never seriously thought about the effects of cats on wildlife populations. They’d be more likely to manage their cat’s hunting behaviours if it was killing things all the time.

You can take a short quiz (16 multiple choice questions) to find out what kind of cat caretaker you are. For what it’s worth, the quiz says I’m a “conscientious protector,” which sounds about right.

cat-predation

In his mind, of course, Buddy is a fierce, powerful feline and a mighty hunter. In reality he’s hilariously inept at the hunting games we play, and no matter how many times I’ve brought him outside on his harness, he goes into sensory overload every time, spending the first 20 minutes nervously huddled before he relaxes, his tail shoots up and he starts to enjoy the new sights and smells.

Fortunately I don’t have to deal with a cat who pines for the outdoors. Bud has no desire to go out there on his own, and he won’t even step onto the balcony if it’s too hot, too cold, raining, snowing or especially windy.

Most of all it’s too dangerous out there between traffic, potential predators like coyotes, train tracks, other cats and people who will abuse or kill cats just because they can. I don’t want to lose my little Bud.

Dear readers, if you take the test, please let us know which category it placed you in.