Tag: feline research

Study: Even Experienced Caretakers Give Cats ‘Unwelcome Affection’

By chance, one of the first things I saw Tuesday in my post-wake-up browsing was a short video of three guys standing in a triangle formation, each of them with a puppy. A drum recording began, and the men began drumming an overturned pot in the middle with the puppies’ paws.

The dogs, of course, had no idea what was going on. They were confused and stressed. Then I saw this from the official TikTok page of Imperial Point Animal Hospital in Delray Beach, Florida:

That’s a veterinarian abusing a kitten.

It might not be overt abuse. She’s not hitting or screaming at the poor cat. But she’s taking a sentient being with its own feelings, likes and dislikes, comforts and discomforts, and using it as a toy for clicks and likes on social media.

I thought about that when I read the newest study from Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham, which looks at the way people interact with their cats and how their behavior may or may not align with what cats prefer and what they’re comfortable with.

Although Bud and I have a deep bond formed over more than seven years of spending time together, establishing trust, mutual respect and love, he would tear my face off if I did to him what the vet tech is doing to the kitten in the above video.

And you know what? He’d be justified, once he got over the shock and wondered if I’d been replaced with a doppleganger.

The UK study involved more than 100 felines at Battersea Dogs and Cats’ London cattery, with scientists recording interactions between humans and cats via a GoPro camera in a large pen where people can interact with cats one-on-one. There were 120 human participants of various ages and from different walks of life. Each person interacted with three cats separately.

Researchers looked at whether the cat or the human initiated interaction, where the human touched the cat, whether the human restrained the cat, and the cat’s response.

They also collected information on each human participant, such as how many cats they have at home and how long they’ve been caring for felines. Human participants rated themselves on how well they know cats and how well they take care of them.

They used a system that corresponds to the below image to grade physical affection. The image is mostly self-explanatory, but to be clear, the green areas are where cats like to be touched, the yellow areas are “meh,” and the red areas are no-go zones for most cats:

greenyellowredcatareas

In earlier studies, the team established what many cat caretakers know: Allowing cats to initiate physical interactions, going easier and lighter on petting, letting cats control how long the interactions last, and avoiding any kind of restraint are “best practices” for petting cats. They reaffirmed that scratching cats under the chin, rubbing their cheeks and forehead are “the best ways to increase their affection and reduce aggression.”

That might seem obvious, but in research there’s an important distinction between knowing something (or thinking you know it) and proving it with research. It’s important to prove it, and to forgo assumptions, to produce credible and repeatable experiments.

Animal behaviorist Lauren Finka, lead author on the new study, said although the above may seem like common knowledge among experienced caretakers, that’s not always true, and it’s not always reflected in their behavior.

“Our findings suggest that certain characteristics we might assume would make someone good at interacting with cats—how knowledgeable they say they are, their cat ownership experiences and being older—should not always be considered as reliable indicators of a person’s suitability to adopt certain cats, particularly those with specific handling or behavioral needs,” Finka said.

We should point out here that these are “best practices” for establishing a healthy, trusting relationship with cats, and taking their feelings into consideration. Lots of people might force their cats to do things without much push back, but that doesn’t mean the cat is happy. No one’s perfect, and there are always things we can learn about how to do better by our furry friends.

Finka also said she hopes people who run shelters and rescues take the research into consideration. That’s because some people run into the same problems I did: When you’ve never had a cat, and/or you don’t fit the profile of what people think a “cat person” is or should be, you could encounter resistance or skepticism from shelter staff.

One volunteer at an animal shelter asked me if I was adopting a kitten for my kids or girlfriend, because it didn’t occur to her that I’d want a cat. Some shelters require references from a veterinarian, which you can’t get if you’ve never had a pet before.

“Importantly, within shelters, we should also avoid discriminating against potential adopters with no previous cat ownership experience,” Finka said, “because with the right support, they may make fantastic cat guardians.”

For us, it’s more confirmation of what we’ve always believed: The more you take your cat’s feelings into consideration, and treat the little one with the respect he or she deserves, the happier your cat and the deeper your bond will grow.

Sunday Cats: Adopt A Cat And All Your Wildest Dreams Will Come True! PLUS: Buddy Has Left The Building!

I know you’re going to read this and think, “Okay, what have these two wiseasses come up with this time?” but I swear we didn’t make this one up!

It even appears to be a legitimate research paper, despite first attracting media attention on April Fool’s Day. (The paper itself was accepted in late 2021 and published in the journal PeerJ on March 25.)

To put it simply, adopting a cat will make all your wildest dreams come true. Buddy was right!

Cat servants are rated more attractive than people who don’t share their homes with cats, rate higher on traditional measurements of attractiveness like facial symmetry, and even weigh less (women) or, if they’re men, have higher levels of testosterone.

That’s according to a multinational research team led by Javier Borráz-León of Finland’s University of Turku.

How is this possible?

The team — which also consists of scientists from Latvia, Estonia and Mexico — believes it’s because of the infamous toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that infects cat droppings and can pass to humans and other animals.

T gondii nudges its hosts toward behavior that propagates the parasite itself.

“First, we found that infected men had lower facial fluctuating asymmetry whereas infected women had lower body mass, lower body mass index, a tendency for lower facial fluctuating asymmetry, higher self-perceived attractiveness, and a higher number of sexual partners than non-infected ones,” the study authors wrote. “Then, we found that infected men and women were rated as more attractive and healthier than non-infected ones.”

There’s precedent for this. Earlier studies have found that while most parasites make their hosts less likely to reproduce because they cause detectable negative health defects, toxoplasma gondii does the opposite. Male rats who are infected by t. gondii are more attractive to potential sexual partners in an example of a parasite that “can indeed manipulate host sexual signaling to their own advantage.”

That’s not to say you’d want to go and get yourself infected. Toxoplasma gondii can cause negative health effects, most famously in pregnant women, and may be responsible for agitating certain mental health issues. Some scientists have said fears about the parasite are overblown, and cats aren’t actually the primary culprits: People are more likely to become infected by drinking water from unsanitary sources, eating undercooked meat or shellfish, or eating unwashed vegetables and fruits from contaminated soil.

Still, it’s possible to get the parasite from being careless around cat litter, especially if your cat spends time outdoors. It’s another good reason to keep your kitties inside.

Buddy has left the building

After surviving a brutal and intentional attack when two teenagers sicced their pitbulls on him, Buddy the Philadelphia Cat has been upgraded to stable condition and he’s off to a foster home!

The little guy made headlines and captured hearts around the world with his ordeal, his bravery and the strength he showed as he clung to life in those first few days, when veterinarians feared he could succumb to his many wounds.

But late this week, Buddy was able to stand up for the first time since the attack, and he had a big appetite after so many days spent incapacitated and on pain medication.

The little fighter still needs time to recover before the Pennsylvania SPCA finds a good home for him. From what we hear, there are no shortage of applications from people who would love to give him the best life possible. For the time being, he’s staying with one of the veterinarians who cared for him during those fraught early days, so it’s good to know the good boy will have a familiar face around.

Why Creating ‘Hypoallergenic Cats’ With Gene Editing Is A Bad Idea

On paper, the promise of “hypoallergenic cats” sounds great.

For the first time, people who love cats but are allergic to the furry little guys would be able to open up their homes to them. More cat lovers and more homes for cats is always a good thing, right?

Maybe not in this case.

The quest to create cats who do not trigger allergies depends on CRISPR gene editing, a method that allows scientists to edit, delete and replace sections of the genome. In this case, Virginia-based biotech company InBio wants to edit the genome of domestic felines to block Fel d 1 (Felis domesticus allergen I), a protein produced in cat saliva and in tiny subdermal exocrine glands, which secrete the protein via the same ducts that allow a cat’s fur to grow out from its skin.

Since cats are fastidious neat freaks and groom themselves constantly, the Fel d 1-carrying saliva is applied to their coats several times a day. When it dries, it contaminates a cat’s living space by flaking off the fur as dander or by shedding.

That’s why people who are allergic to cats can suffer symptoms like sneezing, itching and watery eyes not only from petting them, but also from spending time in homes where cats live.

What does Fel d 1 do, and why do cats need it?

The problem is that no one knows why cats produce Fel d 1 and what purpose it serves. Other proteins, like Fel d 4 found in pheromones and Fel d 2, help cats communicate by scent and prevent certain fluids from leaving the bloodstream, respectively.

Take a look at this quote from Nicole Brackett, a geneticist at InBio: (The emphasis on certain words is ours)

“The gene sequences don’t appear to be that well conserved over the course of evolution, which suggest things about whether or not the gene is essential,” Brackett told BioSpace, a life sciences publication. “An essential gene, one that would be required for survival or viability, generally doesn’t change much over evolution, and we’re seeing change between the exotic and domestic cat that suggests that maybe those sequences are not conserved, and maybe the protein is not essential.”

While we understand scientists have to be circumspect, especially regarding research that breaks new ground, that’s a lot of hedging and a lot of uncertainty. (It’s also not clear if Brackett is comparing domestic feline Fel d 1 levels to wild cats — felis sylvestris and lybica — wild felids in general, or hybrids like Bengals and Savannah cats, which are more commonly called exotics.)

cute cat lying on pillow
Credit: cottonbro/Pexels

The team members developing the allergen gene edit assume Fel d 1 doesn’t have a critical function because individual domestic cats and other species of felids may produce different quantities of the protein.

But that’s a huge assumption, and it’s also presumptuous to assume we humans would know whether the gene edits have a major impact on felines. After all, we still don’t always know when cats are in pain or the reasons for many of their behaviors, and we don’t know what sort of cascade effect can be triggered by shutting down the production of a protein.

The race to make cats hypoallergenic

Companies see a huge opportunity for profit in the cat allergy alleviation market. Last year, Purina announced to much fanfare the availability of a new kind of cat food the company claimed would drastically reduce allergens after about three weeks of putting kitties on the new grub.

The claims haven’t been independently verified, and most press coverage is either credulous or consists of marketing masquerading as news coverage, like this advertisement from Purina that is presented like a news story in USA Today.

Back when a company called HypoCat announced it had conducted successful trials of a “vaccine” that would “neutralize’ Fel d 1, we spoke with immunologist Kamal Tirumalai, who pointed out that humans making such profound changes to companion animals for the sake of human convenience “passes neither the scientific nor the moral smell test.”

Like others, Tirumalai said she worried about unintended consequences.

“A vaccine given to cats to reduce their allergenicity for humans burdens them unnecessarily when human allergy to cats is primarily a human problem and should have a human solution in the form of reducing people’s cat allergies,” Tirumalai told PITB at the time. “Cats are perfect as they are. Why should they be the ones forced to change in order to be accommodated by a human whose immune system happens to have a problem with one of their proteins? This solution just doesn’t pass the moral smell test.”

HypoCat uses an injection to “induce anti-Fel d 1 antibodies in the cat,” while the CRISPR technique would snip the relevant DNA out entirely.

Buddy
“Come now, let us not be absurd. Do you really think a designer kitten could be as handsome as I am?” Credit: Big Buddy

So far, Brackett and her colleagues have deleted one of two cat cells that produce Fel d 1 in samples in a petri dish, and have not made any changes to live animals. The experiments yielded a “55 percent knockout rate” for the Fel d 1 allergen, Brackett said, “which we were really happy with.”

Designer kittens: Gattaca for cats

If subsequent attempts are successful and the company sees commercial promise in editing feline genes, the process could be used to create “designer kittens” or to alter the genomes of existing cats. Brackett told Smithsonian magazine that the goal is to accomplish the latter.

But if it turns out the edits don’t work for existing cats, or the designer kitten trend becomes a thing, there’s another major moral concern similar to the objections to cat cloning. If people buy designer kittens, they’re not opening their homes to the millions of cats who need them.

Manipulating feline DNA isn’t a novel idea. A decade ago, a research team spliced genes from jellyfish using a different method to create cats who glow in UV light as part of a study into feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).

Ultimately it comes down to what we’re willing to do for the sake of our own convenience. At a time when declawing has finally been outlawed in two states and dozens of cities, and people are more conscientious than ever with regard to their pets, do we want to risk their health so we don’t have to pop a few Benadryl?

Parsnip Was Rescued From A Hoarder And Found Her Forever Home — Then She Got Sick

Anae Evangelista was reeling from the deaths of two close friends when she saw Parsnip in a local shelter’s online post.

The 21-year-old college student had been thinking of getting a cat for weeks after accompanying a friend to a local shelter. After checking the shelter’s adoptable pets again, she fell in love with an adorable tabby with a clipped ear and sky blue eyes and immediately made plans to see her in San Diego.

Parsnip took to Evangelista immediately.

“She was so affectionate, pushing her head into my hand for pets, and I knew she was the one,” Evangelista told PITB.

Although many cats take days or weeks to adjust to their forever homes, Parsnip “strutted into my apartment as if she owned it from day one, zooming all over the place [with] enough energy to bounce off the walls,” Evangelista said.

Parsnip sleeping
Parsnip enjoys a snooze with toe beans on display.

Although she had a rough start to life and was rescued from a hoarding situation, Parsnip was friendly, affectionate and warmed quickly to her new home. As human and kitten became fast friends, Parsnip’s presence was an immediate boost to Evangelista’s mental health.

‘She’s been my rock,” she said, “and although she can’t talk, I feel as if she’s constantly encouraging me to stay strong.”

But after about six weeks Parsnip’s energy level took a distressing dive. She was weak, slept a lot and wouldn’t eat much. A vet visit didn’t yield any answers, and the next day Parsnip displayed more telltale signs of a seriously sick cat — she stopped eating and drinking entirely, and began eliminating outside of her litter box.

After consulting another veterinarian, Evangelista finally had an answer. Little Parsnip was suffering from Feline infectious peritonitis, a more virulent strain of feline coronavirus that infects white blood cells resulting in dangerous inflammation, per the Cornell Feline Health Center.

“An intense inflammatory reaction to FIPV occurs around vessels in the tissues where these infected cells locate, often in the abdomen, kidney, or brain,” according to Cornell. “It is this interaction between the body’s own immune system and the virus that is responsible for the development of FIP.”

The disease is “usually progressive and almost always fatal without therapy.”

But there’s hope for Parsnip: With the help of her veterinarian and an online group for people whose cats have FIPV, Evangelista was able to get her kitty accepted for experimental treatment with GS-441524, a nucleoside analogue antiviral drug that has proven effective at treating all types of FIP in several trials in recent years. (It’s been so effective, in fact, that Chinese pharmaceutical manufacturers have been supplying GS-441524 on the black market to cat caretakers who haven’t been able to get their cats into trials.)

Since starting the treatment, Parsnip’s responded well: She’s eating again, the swelling has been in retreat, and she’s once again interested in play time, exploring and other things cats love to do. She’s even able to hop up on the couch again.

That’s a far cry from her condition just three weeks ago when she had a 105-degree fever, no interest in things around her and couldn’t get up under her own power.

The 84-day treatment, subsequent vet visits, monitoring and blood work is expensive: Evangelista estimates it’ll cost her about $5,000 in total. She’s looking to raise half that amount via a GoFundMe. It’s a huge expense, especially for a college student, but for Evangelista, spending the money is without question.

“She’s been my foundation and she deserves the world,” she said, “so I want to give her the chance to live to see it.”

Follow Parsnip’s progress on Instagram @lilmissparsnip

Do You Use ‘Baby Talk’ With Your Cat?

A few years ago when Bud was a bit more of a daredevil than he is now, I was sitting on my balcony on a warm summer night when the little dumbass squeezed through the railing bars and did a circuit of the balcony outside the rail — with only three or four inches of ledge between him and a potentially brutal fall onto the concrete below.

“Bud!” I said, feeling my own fear of heights bubble up as I watched him take his precarious stroll.

He ignored me.

“Bud!” I said again, loud enough to make sure he heard me but not so loud as to startle him and cause him to fall. “Bud! I’m talking to you! Get back over here right now!”

He paid me no mind. I stood up, put my hands on the railing and looked down at him.

“Buddy, get back here now! I’m not gonna say it again!”

At that point I realized there was a couple about my age, probably returning from the bars, drunk-walking toward the back door of the building and watching me have a furious one-sided discussion with my cat. They seemed to think it was hilarious, not only because I was speaking to my cat, but also because I was talking to the little stinker like he was a person.

I don’t baby talk with Buddy, and I’ve noticed my brother doesn’t baby talk his dog, Cosmo.

Sure I’ll speak to Bud warmly and encourage him when he’s clearly frightened of something. (Which is very rare, of course, because he’s such a fearless and brave tiger!) But it isn’t baby talk, and 95 percent of the time I speak to little man as if he’s, well, a little man.

It turns out I may be “doing it wrong,” at least according to some veterinarians and animal behaviorists who say baby talk is a good way to communicate with pets. Animal behaviorists call it “pet-directed speech,” and although the studies so far have been limited, they seem to suggest cats (and dogs) are more likely to respond to it than typical speech in normal registers and cadences. (A study published in the journal Animal Cognition earlier this year found horses respond well to “baby talk” too.)

Despite that, I just can’t bring myself to do it. There are certain standards we must uphold in this home, and besides, I’m pretty sure Bud would paw-smack me if one day I scratched his head and started saying “Who’s a good widdle boy? Is that you? Are you the good widdle boy? Yes you are! Yes you — OUCH! What the hell, dude? Why’d you do that?”

Do you “baby talk” to your pets?

person wearing apron holding orange tabby cat
“Who’s a cute widdle fluffy wuffy?” Credit: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels