Wednesday, 29 October 2014

How Does a Dog's Brain Respond to the Smell of a Familiar Human?

And what does it tell us about the importance of people to their dogs?

Silhouette of a happy dog and girl at sunset in autumn
Photo: hitmanphoto / Shutterstock

New fMRI research by Gregory Berns et al (in press) shows that dog’s brains respond differently to the smell of a familiar human compared to an unfamiliar human and other canines – suggesting that certain people are special to their dogs.

The research focussed on a part of the brain called the caudate, which has been much investigated in humans, monkeys and rats. The scientists explain that “caudate activity is correlated with salient, usually rewarding signals that cause the animal to change its behavioural orientation to approach or consume the stimulus.” Previous research by the team showed that this part of the brain lights up when the dog is given a hand signal that means it will be given a treat, confirming that caudate activation in dogs is connected with rewards.

The results showed that the caudate was activated significantly more in response to the smell of the familiar human than to any of the other smells – even the familiar dog. The scientists say, “Importantly, the scent of the familiar human was not the handler, meaning that the caudate response differentiated the scent in the absence of the person being present. The caudate activation suggested that not only did the dogs discriminate that scent from the others, they had a positive association with it. This speaks to the power of the dog’s sense of smell, and it provides clues to the importance of humans in dog’s lives.”

Does this mean we can say that dogs love us? It’s certainly the case that when people look at photographs of loved ones, the same part of the brain is activated. But it's hard to interpret the activation on the scan in terms of the dog's subjective experience.

The researchers caution there is another possible explanation in terms of conditioning. It may be that the familiar person had previously given the dog food and so the scent was simply eliciting a conditioned response. The researchers say they think it unlikely it is a conditioned response, because it was typically the handler – not the familiar human – who was responsible for feeding the dog.

The results also showed that the olfactory bulb in the brain was activated by all five smells. This is not surprising but it is useful to know the result is as expected. The canine brain presents a bit of a challenge for fMRI studies – training needs aside – simply because of the great variety of head shapes in dogs. 

12 dogs took part in the study. They had all previously taken part in fMRI research, in which they had to lie absolutely still during the scan. The smells came from swabs taken from the armpit of humans and from the perineal-genital area of dogs.

The scents used in the study were of a familiar human, an unfamiliar human, a familiar dog, an unfamiliar dog, and the dog’s own scent. The familiar human was not the dog’s main caregiver – as that person was present during the scan – but someone else from the household, typically the husband or child of the main caregiver. The familiar dog lived in the same house.

The dogs were trained using positive reinforcement and models of the equipment.  A clicker was used in initial stages of the training, but since the equipment is noisy it would not be heard during the scan itself. The dogs were taught a hand signal that meant they would get a reward, and this was used to replace a clicker in later stages of training. 

The training specific to this study included preparing the dog for a different head-coil than in previous scans, and getting used to having scent-impregnated cotton wool swabs put under the nose while they remained still.

The number of dogs is small, and there are always trade-offs in the statistics used to make sense of fMRI scans. But the results are very intriguing, and we look forward to future research from this team.

The full paper is available (open access) at the link below. Photographs of the dogs who took part are on page 3. 

Do you have a special place in your dog’s heart?

Reference
Berns, G., Brooks, A., & Spivak, M. (2014). Scent of the familiar: An fMRI study of canine brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar human and dog odors Behavioural Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.02.011

If you enjoyed this, you might also like:
Dogs Can Haz BrainScanz and EEG?
Canine Neuroscience
 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Are All Labrador Retrievers the Same?

Or do show dogs and field dogs vary in temperament?

A chocolate lab sitting proudly
Photo: c.byatt-norman / Shutterstock
It’s often said there are personality differences between Labrador Retrievers bred to show (conformation dogs) and those bred to work (field dogs). And chocolate labs have a reputation for being different than black and yellow labs. Is it true? New research by Sarah Lofgren et al (Royal (Dick) Veterinary School, University of Edinburgh) investigates.

Although many Labrador Retrievers are family pets, some work as hunting dogs while others are bred for the show ring. There’s a difference in appearance between field (or working) Labradors and conformation (or show) dogs, and some people think they have different personalities too. 

Almost 2000 owners of Labrador Retrievers registered with the UK Kennel Club completed a demographic survey and the C-BARQ, a questionnaire that assesses canine personality. The survey included questions about exercise, and whether the dog was a family pet or a working dog used for retrieval or as a show dog.

Gundogs were given higher ratings for trainability, fetching, and attention seeking than show dogs and pets. They were also rated as less likely to bark, less fearful of loud noises, and less likely to have a stereotypy (unusual behaviour). Most of these are not surprising as they fit with the requirements of a dog that has to work at retrieval in the field. For example, it’s good they are considered less fearful of loud noises since they will routinely hear gunshots as part of their work. They need to be good at retrieval, and they will spend periods of time waiting in between retrieves.

The show dogs were rated as less fearful of humans, objects and noise, less aggressive to people who are not the owner, and less agitated when ignored. Again most of these fit with the requirements of a dog that will perform well in the show ring, where there are unfamiliar people and sounds, and the dog will be handled by the judge who is a stranger to them.

Compared to black and yellow Labradors, chocolate Labs were given lower ratings for trainability and fear of noises, and higher ratings for unusual behaviours. Compared to black Labs, they scored lower on fetching but were more excitable and more likely to be agitated when ignored; however these were not different compared to yellow labs. It is not known if the genes for coat colour also affect behaviour in this breed. It is also possible that other genes exist by chance at greater levels in certain kinds of Labrador, particularly since some dogs were related. 

One of the nice things about this study is the range in the amount of daily exercise; while some dogs had less than an hour, others got more than four hours of exercise a day. In general, the dogs who got more exercise were less fearful of humans and objects, less likely to have separation anxiety, and less aggressive. The authors suggest that dogs who get less exercise may become bored and frustrated.

One potential confound the researchers acknowledge is that dogs originally bred to work, who subsequently turn out not to be very good at it, may then become family pets instead. Hence it is possible that the dogs kept solely as pets include some ‘failed’ working dogs.

The results are correlational and do not show causality. The differences between the two types of Labrador Retrievers could be due to genetics (being bred for a different purpose), environment (being raised and trained differently), or a combination.  In addition, the results rely on reports from owners who are likely aware of widely held beliefs about the breed.

The scientists say, “This large-scale study of behavioural characteristics in Labrador Retrievers revealed a number of associations between physical, lifestyle and management characteristics of the dogs and personality traits. The explanatory factor with the largest overall effect was the Working Status of the dog, where pets showed dispositions that are generally considered less desirable than those of Gundogs and Showdogs.”

The study is fascinating because it looks at personality differences within one breed, which is unusual. It also shows a relationship between exercise and temperament. The higher ratings for trainability amongst gundogs – who have received large amounts of training – make me wonder if this is a fixed trait, or if training leads to increased trainability.  

Many people think Labrador Retrievers are the perfect family dog. What kind of Labrador do you prefer?

Reference
Lofgren, S., Wiener, P., Blott, S., Sanchez-Molano, E., Woolliams, J., Clements, D., & Haskell, M. (2014). Management and personality in Labrador Retriever dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 156, 44-53 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.04.006

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.

A panhandler's German Shepherd Dog on the street
Photo: everst / Shutterstock

Research by Michelle Lem et al (University of Guelph) asks homeless young people (aged 18-24) what their pet means to them. Previous studies have focussed on the benefits to homeless people of owning a dog or cat. The aim of this study was to get a balanced picture of both the advantages and disadvantages. 

Ten homeless young people took part in in-depth interviews about their pet. 8 of them had a dog, and 2 had a cat but had previously had a dog whilst homeless. Most lived on the street or in a vulnerable housing situation (squatting/couch-surfing), and three had found stable housing.

The main theme to emerge was that of putting the animal first. Everyone in the study said they put their pet first, even if this meant suffering hardship themselves. For example, they would not take up housing if they could not bring the animal with them. This shows the value they place on the companionship they get. The authors point out that for some youth their relationship with their pet is the most meaningful relationship they have, and potentially the only loving relationship in their life. For example, one youth said, “My relationship with MacKenzie [the dog]… is the best I ever had.”

Some young men described sleeping on the street because they were unable to find a shelter that would allow pets. Another had become homeless because the dog was not allowed at the relative’s apartment where he had been living. 

One man described how he had a job, but with no home he had nowhere to leave his dog while he went to work. At first he found someone to mind the dog for him during the day, but they were not reliable which meant that sometimes he could not go to work, and so he lost the job.

Pets helped people in several ways, such as providing motivation to find housing that would allow pets, so that the dog would have a roof over its head. For example, one said, “I love him and I get a place for him. Really, like, if it wasn’t for him, I’d be on the streets.” 

Some participants said the pet helped them to stay out of trouble with the police and to use less drugs. (Some participants did not mention drug use).

There were different views about begging, with some saying it was wrong to take an animal begging, and others liking to because it meant they made more money.

There were stresses associated with looking after an animal. One young woman said, “It’s really hard taking care of them because I can’t always get them food… I’m worried that something might happen to them.” Several people had lost an animal, in one case when it was run over, and in two cases when it was taken in by animal control (following arrest/being sent to jail) and subsequently euthanized.

The authors say, “Companion animals appear to serve as a vehicle for youth to learn about unconditional love, trust, and constancy in a relationship. With such strength of attachment, it is not surprising that youth consistently choose to forego opportunities for shelter, housing and employment in order to be with their companion animals. Although these choices may be to the detriment of their own health and success in getting off the street, for some youth this “Pet before self” theme may be a driver for reducing their use of drugs and hence number of arrests, as well as beneficially affect their daily activities by creating structure and routine.”

The research took place in Toronto and Ottawa, and involved very detailed interviews with a small number of people. The advantage is a rich dataset, but it is not possible to generalize from such a small sample and so more research is needed. The recommendations will be especially helpful to organizations that cater to homeless people. Suggestions include allowing pets in some shelters, schemes to make pet food and veterinary care available to the homeless, and even dog daycare at shelters to help people transition into employment.

Some organizations have programs to assist with pet food and vet care for homeless and low income people. For example, the BC SPCA has an outreach program called Charlie's Food Bank, which goes to Vancouver's DownTown East Side every Thursday morning.

The importance of housing does not only apply to people who are homeless – lack of suitable housing is a very common reason for companion animals to be surrendered to humane societies. Making more pet-friendly housing available would benefit both people and their pets.

Reference
Lem, M., Coe, J.B., Haley, D.B., Stone, E., & O'Grady, W. (2013). Effects of companion animal ownership among Canadian street-involved youth: A qualitative analysis Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, XL (4), 285-304

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Surprising History of Veterinary Medicine for Dogs and Cats

And the ‘dangerous’ woman who played a vital role.

A tabby cat looks at the camera
Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH
We are used to the idea that veterinarians treat dogs, cats, rabbits and other small animals, but it wasn’t always so. Before the automobile, the main role for vets was in the treatment of horses. As the number of horses declined, two British government reports (in 1938 and 1944) suggested vets should specialize in the treatment of farm animals. 

The change to small animals is often explained as due to increasing standards of living and people’s desire for companion animals after the Second World War. A new report by Andrew Gardiner of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies (University of Edinburgh) shows the real reason is the rise of animal charities, and the role of one woman in particular: Maria Dickin.

It’s a tale of politics and intrigue. Gardiner says that in the period between the two wars, “a new territory of animal care was opening up. By the time the veterinary profession realized that things were moving beyond its control, it was almost too late.”

Maria Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals of the Poor in a basement in 1917. Dickin was in her 40s and had no previous experience of looking after animals, but she saw the need for them to receive care. “Bring your sick animals! Do not let them suffer! All animals treated. All treatment free” said the sign.  

The organization grew enormously. Ten years later, they treated 410,000 animals in a year and had even opened clinics in other countries. Although the people who took their animals to the PDSA would not have been able to afford to go to a vet, the veterinary profession still looked down on the organization. 

The people who worked at PDSA clinics had no veterinary training. This was not illegal, because the law at the time only prevented people from calling themselves veterinary surgeons without training, not from caring for animals. The large number of animals passing through the clinics meant that staff quickly became experienced, and apparently many vets at the time – more used to horses – were not good at handling small animals. 

In 1926, when a woman called Sarah Martha Grove Hardy left the PDSA £50,000, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons tried to claim some of the funds. G.H. Livesey, a prominent vet, called people involved in animal welfare ‘cranks’ and said, “All of us who have had experience in dog practice, know that there are ladies (generally childless) who have to turn their attention to something, and nearly always they turn to dogs.”

The funds from Grove Hardy were used to set up a Sanatorium in Essex. Gardiner describes it as “a comprehensive treatment, training and headquarters complex with numerous wards, stables and kennels, X ray and UV light treatment facilities and a spacious operating theatre. Educational facilities included lecture rooms and a library.” The Sanatorium had just one actual veterinary surgeon. As well as treating animals, it was a training facility for PDSA staff.

The vets of the time were not keen on other animal charities either. Writing in 1931, the then-secretary of the RCVS Warwick Fowle said "The lady [Maria Dickin] is dangerous and energetic; the RSPCA is timid and apathetic."

Since the law could not be used to close down the animal clinics, the veterinary associations turned to a moral argument about animals having a right to ‘proper’ diagnosis and treatment. Gardiner writes that they were also beginning to realize that treating dogs (and cats) could be enough to support a business. Changes in the law were being considered that would have meant the PDSA had to hire vets – not that many would have wanted to work there.

Against this backdrop, Dickin (now retired from some of her PDSA roles) and the President of the RCVS, G.H. Livesey (he of the ‘cranks’ jibe above), came to an agreement. Large PDSA clinics would hire a veterinarian, while smaller ones would refer to a local vet when appropriate (and local vets did not have to take the work if they did not want to). 

Although some vets supported the change, many did not. One wrote “I would like to point out … that the ‘dear little doggy’ stuff is quite a futile line to take with our profession. Some of us, thank goodness, have a real job of work to do. He mentions little doggies and pussies having a vote in the matter. Believe me, if this were the case, the cats would be too occupied in passing anti-castration laws to worry about the PDSA.”

Nonetheless, the changes went ahead and over time vets developed a better appreciation of dogs and cats. In 1957 the British Small Animal Veterinary Association was formed. PDSA still exists today and provides free veterinary treatment to 2.3million animals a year in the UK. 

Gardiner says, “The role of Maria Dickin and the PDSA has been marginalized within the history of British veterinary medicine.” His account shows that, in developing a network of animal clinics that the veterinary profession had not imagined possible or desirable, they started a new discipline of small animal practice.

Reference
Gardiner, A. (2014). The 'Dangerous' Women of Animal Welfare: How British Veterinary Medicine Went to the Dogs Social History of Medicine, 27 (3), 466-487 DOI: 10.1093/shm/hkt101

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

What Encourages People to Walk Their Dog?

And is dog-walking a good way to persuade people to take more exercise?

A boy and his dog on a coastal path in England
Photo: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

We know that most people do not get the 150 minutes of exercise per week that is recommended. Could encouraging people to walk their dogs more often help, and if so, how best to go about it? A new paper by Carri Westgarth et al (2014) of the University of Liverpool reviews the state of current research.

Although to some dog owners a daily walk is an essential part of the routine, there are also people who never walk their dog. For example, a 2008 study in Australia (Cutt et al 2008) found that on average people walk their dog four times a week for a total of 134 minutes, and that 23% of dog owners never walk their dog. 

Encouraging more people to take their dog for a regular walk would be good for both the dog and owner.

The research found that as well dog-related and owner-related variables, aspects of the physical and social environment also influence dog walking behaviour.

The dog’s size, age and breed are related to dog-walking, and it seems that dogs that are regularly walked have fewer behavioural problems. This could be due to ongoing training and socializing during the walks, and/or it could be that dogs with behaviour problems are taken for walks less often because their owners simply find it too difficult. Dogs that pull on the leash, bark, behave badly or are fearful or aggressive are walked less often. Helping owners resolve these issues might enable them to take more walks.

As you might expect, the dog-owner relationship is an important part of their model. People who feel a strong emotional attachment to their canine companion, and who feel that the dog provides them with motivation and social support to walk, are more likely to walk their dog regularly. (Here in the CAPB household, the happy anticipation on the dogs' faces when it is time for walkies definitely provides motivation).  

The social environment can encourage or discourage dog-walking. Amongst the influences are feelings of safety in the neighbourhood, fear of loose dogs, and unhappiness with other dog owners not picking up dog faeces. 

The authors suggest a number of aspects of the physical environment that encourage dog walking. They say, “Accessible public open space for dogs and the provision of dog-related infrastructure within walking areas are also important to dog owners (e.g. clear signage, dog litter bags and bins, accessible water sources, fencing around designated off-leash areas, separation from children’s play areas, dog agility equipment, parks not being located near to busy roads and being well-fenced).”

In terms of encouraging more dog walking, the scientists suggest two main approaches. They say, “the evidence currently suggests that dog walking may be most effectively encouraged through: 1) targeting the dog-owner relationship to increase the sense of obligation to walk the dog as well as the emotional support the dog can provide to the owner; and 2) by the provision of dog-supportive physical environments.”

Of course, these health promotion activities would only target people who have a dog, but this is a sizeable proportion of the population. And one advantage to regular dog-walking is that people tend to go out in all weathers.

Cultural differences will also need to be taken into account. For example, in the US and Canada some people take their dogs to a dog park, a typically-fenced area where dogs can run around while their owners tend to stand still and watch. In contrast, these generally do not exist in the UK where dogs are allowed off-leash in many more areas. 

The paper is what is known as a meta-analysis, in which the existing research literature is scoured for relevant studies. One problem the paper identifies is that many studies are small-scale and there is little standardization. Differences in study design make it hard to generalize findings. Future research that uses standardized measures with a strong experimental design will be particularly welcome.

There’s a nice touch at the end of the article. Most journals require authors to state if they have any competing interests that might influence their work. In this case, they state, “All authors own a dog(s).” 

This is a thorough analysis of the literature on dog-walking and touches on more variables than there is space to cover here. The full paper is available (open access) at the link below.

What encourages you to walk your dog?

Reference
Cutt, H., Giles-Corti, B., & Knuiman, M. (2008). Encouraging physical activity through dog walking: Why don't some owners walk with their dog? Preventive Medicine, 46 (2), 120-126 DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2007.08.015  
Westgarth, C., Christley, R., & Christian, H. (2014). How might we increase physical activity through dog walking?: A comprehensive review of dog walking correlates International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 11 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1479-5868-11-83

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dog?

What’s the scoop on picking up poop? New research by Christopher Lowe et al (2014) investigates.

A Pomeranian dog urinates on the grass
Photo: Jakkrit Orrasri / Shutterstock

The study consisted of an environmental survey of several popular dog walking locations, and an online survey that was completed by 933 participants from across the UK (83% were women).

Eight footpaths in Lancashire, in the north of England, were visited in March/April 2010 to check for dog waste. This included a mix of urban and rural locations, and covered the path as well as about 3m either side. A tow path along the canal had 40 dog poos in the space of 25m; at a nature reserve, a path by a railway embankment had a wall along it with a pile of bagged dog faeces on the other side. On a footpath at a reservoir, the researchers found 269 bags of dog waste in 1000m.

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture, as one path with no trash cans or dog waste bins had very low levels of faeces. In order to understand more about this, the researchers designed a questionnaire. 

Ethan Prater / Creative Commons
Now you are probably thinking that people might not be honest in their statements about how often they pick up after their dog, and you have a point. This is an issue for any questionnaire research because people want to present themselves in a good light. The researchers tried to get round this by advertising it as a survey about dog walking, rather than poop scooping, so as to get a more balanced set of participants. And the results are still interesting, so read on…

First of all, the not surprising result is that 98% of dog owners agreed that owners should pick up after their dog if it poos on the pavement, and 97% agreed with this for parks and playing fields. 

However, they did not necessarily think they should always have to pick up after their dog. Only 56% agreed that, regardless of the location, people should pick up. In particular, when it came to countryside or to farmland with livestock, a significant minority thought that dog owners should not have to clean up their dog’s waste (34% for open countryside, 45% for farmland).

People thought the most important reason for picking up after dogs was that it was “the right thing to do”. Reducing the spread of disease and parasites were the next most important reasons.

The proportion of people who said they pick up after their dog in this survey is higher than the 63% found in observational research by Westgarth et al (2010). However, even if people have been overly optimistic about their habits, many of them still indicated that it depends on the context, and that there are some places where they don’t. 

vastateparkstaff / Creative Commons
A small number of participants admitted to sometimes picking up the poo, but then discarding the bag by leaving it somewhere such as the side of a path. This can be a significant problem because it is unsightly and even biodegradable bags take time to decompose; it can cause additional difficulties for landscape workers, such as if a bag bursts while strimming; and it preserves the faeces for longer.

The researchers say, “The path audits suggested that visibility was a key factor in the behaviour of dog walkers with respect to dog waste and that some owners may only clean up after their dogs when obliged to (e.g. in the presence of others). It was considered that given the opportunity these dog walkers would seek to discard the bagged dog waste as quickly as possible and respondents considered that this was also an important factor influencing this behaviour.” It seems that some dog owners are motivated by being seen to do the right thing, rather than actually doing it.

This study shows that a number of factors influence whether or not dog owners clean up dog waste, including the location, environment, visibility, location of trash cans, perceptions of the area, as well as social and personal factors. Future research on the social psychological elements would be especially useful for designing campaigns to change behaviour.

Is dog waste a problem in your neighbourhood?

References
Lowe, C., Williams, K., Jenkinson, S., & Toogood, M. (2014). Environmental and social impacts of domestic dog waste in the UK: investigating barriers to behavioural change in dog walkers International Journal of Environment and Waste Management, 13 (4) DOI: 10.1504/IJEWM.2014.060452  
Westgarth, C., Christley, R., Pinchbeck, G., Gaskell, R., Dawson, S., & Bradshaw, J. (2010). Dog behaviour on walks and the effect of use of the leash Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 125 (1-2), 38-46 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.03.007

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Does Your Cat Sniff New Food?

New research investigates which feline behaviours show that cats find food tasty.

A pretty grey Persian cat with amber eyes and a pink tongue
Photo: FreeBirdPhotos / Shutterstock
There are certain things we can take for granted when feeding the cat: the pitiful miaows that become increasingly strident, the anticipatory purring when you move towards the cat food, and the way the cat wraps herself around your leg as if you’re her best friend ever. But when you put the food down, is there any guarantee she will eat it? 

Cat food manufacturers have teams of cats that work as food testers, to make sure new foods are as tasty as can be. This study, by Aurélie Becques et al (in press) took place at the Panelis Diana Pet Food Division. Here, cats are housed in groups in an indoor environment with access to the outdoors. Two such groups of cats (17 cats in total) took part in this study.

The cats are given free access to kibble for twenty hours of the day, to mimic the most common way of feeding cats in the home. They are fed via a feeding station, which only one cat can enter at a time. The length of time they spend in the station and the amount of food they eat is all measured. A video camera captures their behaviour.

The study investigated feline behaviour when eating a Very Palatable Kibble (VPK) compared to a Less Palatable Kibble. In fact, both kibbles were the same (Royal Canin), but different coatings were applied. The coatings were both made of poultry fat and had the same number of calories, but one was previously shown to be very tasty to cats and the other less so. Both sets of cats had in fact been fed these two foods at some point in the past. 

To further enhance the tastiness of the Very Palatable Kibble, it was mixed with some tuna. This combination was something the cats had not experienced before. It also had the effect of making the VPK slightly less calorie dense.

The cats were given a two day test of each type of food. Since this is a working cat food testing environment, in between the sessions reported here, they were given a different food according to the current rotation.

The results showed that when cats were offered the Very Palatable Kibble, they ate more each day (81g on average compared to 53g). Because cats made different numbers of visits to the feeding station each day, the researchers compared the first three visits and the last visit of each day. With the exception of the last visit on the first day, the cats ate more of the VPK every time they went to the feeding station.

Cats are good at regulating their food intake, and so it is surprising that they ate more calories when fed the VPK. However, since the study only had two days per food, it is possible the cats would have adjusted their food intake over time.

Whether the cat was eating in a sitting or standing position, the speed at which it ate, the length of time from approaching the bowl to starting to eat, and the total amount of licking, was the same for the two foods. Previous research has suggested that licking the lips and grooming the face is associated with finding food tasty, whereas cats lick their nose when they don’t like it so much. The researchers sometimes couldn’t tell whether the cat was licking its lips or its nose, especially at night when it was dark, so this remains a question for future research.

Sniffing behaviour turns out to be an indicator of a new food’s perceived tastiness. On the first day of LPK, the cats spent a lot more time sniffing the food on the first two visits to the feeding station. 

The researchers say, “One may have expected that the novelty of the diet should have caused more sniffing. On the contrary the cats tended to sniff more LPK, a diet that they have already experienced, than VPK that they have previously experienced but without the addition of tuna. The tuna was very odorant and it seemed that this odor was attractive enough to elicit eating in a short lapse of time. On the other hand the longer duration of sniffing the LPK diet may correspond to a hesitation to consume a less palatable diet.”

The researchers say the cat’s behaviour is an indication of how tasty it finds the food. So if you offer a new food and your cat is sniffing at it, it’s probably not a good sign.

Is your cat fussy about food?

Reference
Becques, A., Larose, C., Baron, C., Niceron, C., Feron, C., & Gouat, P. (2014). Behaviour in order to evaluate the palatability of pet food in domestic cats Applied Animal Behaviour Science , 159, 55-61 : 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.07.003