Tag: animal behavior

The Battle of the Buddies!

Back in August there was a story about a bored animal behaviorist and fellow New Yorker who built a talking board for her cat, a la Koko the Gorilla.

Kristiina Wilson told People magazine she was inspired to start the project during the initial Coronavirus lockdown, fashioning a makeshift talking board for her beloved foster fail.

Wilson used large buttons, coded by color and symbol, with each button triggering a recording of a different word when pressed: “Lady” for her, “Snuggle,” “Outside,” “Kittynip” and, of course, “Eat.”

She taught the little guy to use the board using “associative concept learning,” which in this case means pressing a particular button when she has the cat’s attention, and then performing the related action and pressing the button again.

Screenshot_2020-12-16 The Daily Steve B on Instagram “Outside 4eva #cat #cats #igcats #instacats #catsofinstagram #tuxedoca[...]
Wilson’s DIY cat talking board.

“Whenever you’re responding to them, you also repeat the modeling,” Wilson said. “So if he asks for catnip and then I give him catnip, I hit ‘catnip’ again while I’m giving it to him to reinforce what that button is for.”

Her cat is a quick learner, Wilson told People. “He’s like a person dressed in a cat’s body. He’s been screaming at me since he was born and being very clear about his needs and wants.”

Hmmm. Sounds like someone else I know, someone who never hesitates to loudly inform me when he considers the service subpar or the meals tardy.

I decided to give it a try with Buddy, modifying the system to his most frequent demands. When pressed, the buttons say “Big Buddy,” “Food,” “Snack,” “Mattress,” “Nip” and “Mighty Hunter!” (Mattress, as regular readers of this blog have probably already figured out, means Bud wants to take a nap on top of me. Mighty Hunter is his favorite wand toy game. It should be called Inept Hunter, but we must keep up appearances so as not to offend delicate egos.)

I began training Buddy on his new talking board. On the first day he had great fun with it, slapping the buttons randomly and jumping on them to see how many he could activate at once.

On the second day, he understood that pushing the “Big Buddy” button would draw a response from me.

On the third day, I woke up to find three of the buttons relabeled and reset with new digital voice recordings: “Servant,” “TURKEY NOW,” and “SNACK NOW.”

cutebuddy
THE PERPETRATOR: Although he may appear cute, behind that angelic face is a devious, scheming mind that will stop at nothing to obtain more turkey.

Perhaps most frighteningly, Bud was learning to combine the commands: “Servant…TURKEY NOW! TURKEY NOW! … Servant,” the speakers intoned as he hammered on the buttons with his paws.

But by the fourth day things had become truly horrifying. I walked into the living room and saw the humble talking board replaced by a complex ad hoc apparatus, with more than 150 symbols and a developing syntax.

“Good morning… servant… breakfast… immediately… then… massage… mattress…nap!” a synthesized Stephen Hawking said.

Buddy had tapped the message out with the speed and skill of a court stenographer, then sat there silently, looking up at me with his big green eyes.

“Little shit…is too clever…for…his own…good,” I said, mimicking the sound board.

“Big Buddy…better…watch…when asleep,” Buddy responded, pawing each button. “Sometimes…dark … I … can’t tell… where … is …litter box.”

He made a “mrrrrphh!” sound as if for emphasis, then tapped a single key three times: “Breakfast. Breakfast. Breakfast.”

I have now realized my most grievous error: Within two days Bud had wired his apparatus into the fiber optic router, and a few days after that he’d completed work on a prosthetic opposable thumb.

The arms race was escalating, and my lead was evaporating.

buddymugshot

I considered bringing in a dog, but Buddy would just outsmart it: The little terrorist probably has an automated missile launcher at this point, and if not, dogs can be easily bribed with food.

No, I needed something nuclear. Something that would inspire cold terror in my cat and prompt him to think about further escalating the cold war between us.

I needed a vacuum.

The next morning I awoke again to find Buddy tapping out a message for me, ordering breakfast and providing me with a list of tasks and errands.

His smug smile melted like plastic in a fire when I pulled the hand vacuum from behind my back and brandished it.

vacuum
The nuclear option.

“No…you…wouldn’t,” Buddy tapped, keeping one nervous eye on the orange plastic terror.

I held up the power plug.

“Watch me.”

“No…No…No…Big Buddy…servant…No…” he typed furiously. “No…no…nooooooo!!!”

Study Confirms What We All Know: Cats Are Remarkably Lazy

My cat has a morning ritual: He’ll meow in front of the treat cabinet, which now contains healthy snacks, then gobble down his first yums of the day before padding over to the carpet or the couch to lay down.

Ya know, because he worked so hard. After a long and tiring night of sleep and the grueling physical exertion of working his jaw muscles to eat, he needs a respite. A cat nap, if you will.

He’s not unique in this respect, and his morning siesta is just the first of many. Cats need their beauty rest after an exhausting day of lounging, sleeping and having their food literally placed before them.

A new study confirms what we already know — that cats are lazy little bastards — and even hints at new levels of laziness unbeknownst to us thus far.

Working hard or hardly working?

“Get a puzzle feeder,” they say. “Make ’em work a little for their food,” they say. “It’ll stimulate their instincts.”

Animal behaviorists have recommended toys like puzzle feeders and treat balls for years, prompted by research that shows animals enjoy “contrafreeloading,” a fancy way of saying when given a choice between free food and food in a puzzle feeder, animals will opt for the latter.

The behavior is consistent across many species of domestic and wild animals, from dogs and rats to chimpanzees and birds. Maybe it stimulates their urge to forage. Maybe it gives them something fun to do. Or maybe food just tastes better to animals when they’ve earned it.

Cats, however, aren’t contrafreeloaders. They want the easy yums.

That’s according to a new study by a University of California at Davis research team. Cats didn’t ignore the food puzzles entirely, but they showed a clear preference for the low-hanging fruit, so to speak.

“It wasn’t that the cats never used the food puzzle, they just used it less, ate less food from it, and typically would eat from the freely available food first,” said UC Davis’ Mikel Delgado, a co-author of the study.

puzzle-feeder
“I’m tellin’ ya, Horace, they do this just to piss us off. How are we supposed to gobble it all down if we have to fish every little kibble out one by one? I hate humans!”

As for why cats aren’t taken with puzzle feeders — besides their inherent laziness, of course — that question will take more studies to answer.

“There are different theories about why animals might contrafreeload, including boredom in captive environments, stimulating natural foraging behaviors, and creating a sense of control over the environment and outcomes,” Delgado said.

When it comes to cats, Delgado’s best guess is that puzzle feeders might just be the wrong game since it doesn’t stimulate their hunting instincts. Maybe the next study should involve small pieces of chicken and turkey tied to the ends of wand toys, so our mighty little hunters can catch their “prey” and dine like proper tigers.

Best Buddies: You’re Not So Bad For A Cat!

Who says cats and dogs have to be enemies?

Bo, a 5-month-old Beagle puppy, drapes a paw around his best feline bud, 10-month-old Jasper, in this video showing that cats and dogs getting along is not a sign of the apocalypse, contrary to what Bill Murray said in Ghostbusters all those years ago.

Lisa Plummer of South Bend, Indiana is the pet mom to the adorable duo.

“Bo loves his cat siblings so much,” Plummer wrote, adding the little ones sometimes “drive me crazy with their constant chaos.”

“This sweet moment melted my heart,” she wrote, “and made me want to take back all the bad things I’ve said about them.”

This Music Calms Cats, But It Scares The Hell Out of Buddy

In case you didn’t know, music written specifically for cats is a thing.

I’d heard about it a while back, and the project seemed impressive: “Music for Cats” composer David Teie is a soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra, and he worked with animal behaviorists and veterinarians to come up with kitty-soothing sound textures and test the music’s efficacy on cats visiting the veterinarian.

A 2019 study in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery concluded “Music for Cats” could help our furry friends relax and ease their stress. Keeping in mind an earlier study that suggested cats prefer “feline-centric sounds,” Teie incorporated audio of events cats associate with happy times, like kittens suckling milk from their mothers.

Using Buddy as my test subject, I went to Youtube, selected the track Cozmo’s Air from “Music for Cats” and sat back, expecting Bud to start nodding his furry head at any moment.

Instead his ears pricked up, did their radar-dish swivel toward the speakers, and his eyes went wide. As the song gained volume and intensity, Bud’s ears and whiskers snapped back and he let out a clearly anxious “yerrrrrrrrrrppp!” I tried to calm him down, to no avail, and a second track didn’t improve things.

He wasn’t having it.

scaredcat2
This pretty much sums up Buddy’s reaction to cat music. Credit: Creative Commons

Teie’s cat music is back in the news with the release of the Kickstarter-backed Music for Cats 2, and there are quite a few imitators on Youtube hawking their own supposedly cat-soothing musical efforts. (Though your cat might think she’s in Guantanamo Bay if you subject her to six-hour videos of “cat lullabies.”)

Should I test some of the new music on Buddy to see if he responds more favorably? And for our fellow readers and cat servants, have you played any of this stuff for your cats? If you have, how’d it work out?