Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Five Things To Do For Your Cat Today

Want to make your cat happier? Here are some things you can do right now to make your feline feel blissful.

Five things to do for your cat today, illustrated by this beautiful pedigree cat
Photo: Dmitry Nesterov / Shutterstock

Cats are wonderful creatures. When we understand them, we can use that information to make them happier. Here are five things to do for your cat today – and a bonus one to work on over time.

1. Make time to play with your cat

11% of cats have no toys, according to one study (Howell et al 2016).

But the average cat has 7 toys, and toy mice are the most popular. (Strickler and Shull 2014)

Even if your cat has lots of toys of their own, they still like it when their human plays with them. 64% of the owners in Strickler and Shull’s study played with their cat twice a day, but playtime typically lasted 5 or 10 minutes. Amongst people who played with their cat for at least 5 minutes instead of just 1 minute, there were fewer behaviour problems.

But your cat would probably like an even longer play time.

Have you ever felt that when you are moving a toy for your cat, they seem to be hunting it? This is because play satisfies the cat’s predatory instincts.

John Bradshaw PhD, author of Cat Sense and other best-selling books on pets, told NPR that “The research that we've done suggests that [play] it's almost indistinguishable, that everything that a cat does when it's playing seems to be a part of its normal hunting behavior.”

So when a cat plays, it’s not so much about the cat being sociable with you, it’s really about hunting.

This means they like toys that are like prey in some way – maybe they are furry or have feathers or are mouse-sized or squeak like a mouse or are long so the cat can kick their back legs against it. And cats would like you to move it as if it is real prey for them to chase.

5 things to do for your cat today. A beautiful kitten sits with its paws crossed, as if hoping people will learn more about cat

Every cat is an individual, so experiment with different types of toys and different ways of moving them to see what makes your cat engage in play.

And remember that cats can get bored of toys, so you can put some of them away in a cat’s toy box and rotate the toys that are available. (If you have a cat like my tortoiseshell, she will learn to open the box and pick her own toys!).

You might find that multiple sessions of 5 - 10 minutes works best, but you can experiment and see what your cat likes.

Free-ranging cats spend a large part of each day hunting for food, which shows just how important hunting behaviour is to a cat. Strickler and Shull suggest that cats would probably like it if an individual play session lasts for longer than 10 minutes; 30 minutes is the typical length of a time a free-ranging cat spends on a single hunt (although only some of that time would be active chase as the mouse has first to be found). Play keeps your cat active and satisfies that predatory instinct.

So make time to play with your cat!

2. Give your cat a food toy

Another way to engage your cat’s hunting instinct is through the use of food toys. These provide valuable enrichment to our feline friends.

There are many food toys available, including balls with holes in that the cat has to roll to make treats fall out, the mouse-shaped no bowl, containers that have to be tipped like the Trixie Mad Scientist, and things the cat has to paw at to get the treats out.

There are food toys for every level of feline ability. If your cat is new to food toys, start with something easy so they don’t get frustrated trying to get at the food. You may also need to use particularly tasty treats to get their interest. Over time, you can make the toys more difficult, and use them to feed all meals instead of providing ‘free’ food in a bowl.

You can also hide the toys around the house so the cat has to hunt for them to get started.

The great thing about food toys is that although there are some fantastic ones on the market, you can also make them for free. For example, make a hole in a cardboard tube, stick paper over one end, put food inside, paper over the other end, and let your cat figure out how to get the food out of the hole.

Only 5% of cats have food puzzle toys according to a survey of the enrichment people provide for their cats (Alho et al 2016).

Food puzzle toys can help to resolve feline behaviour problems because they provide environmental enrichment that can reduce stress and make the cat more active. (Dantas et al 2016)

Food toys are great for cats because they make them work for their food – completing another part of the predatory sequence.

3. Make sure your cat has nice hiding places

As well as thinking about cats evolving as solitary hunters of prey, we have to remember that cats themselves are prey animals. Which means cats like places they can hide and feel safe.

This is especially important if you have a fearful cat – the kind that runs to hide when people come over to the house.

But all cats need places to hide. In fact, a recent study of shelter cats’ use of a hiding box and a separate perch found the hiding box was much preferred, so much so that it may be considered a basic need for cats (Ellis et al 2017b).

The kind of hiding place that cats prefer is cat-sized, secluded, and often high up from the ground. It’s a place in which they can feel safe.

Examples of safe hiding places include a cardboard box (e.g. a regular cardboard box laying on its side, or a box specially designed for cats), a perch with a lip or a box to go in on a cat tree, a cat cube or cocoon (many types are available commercially), the cat carrier (if the cat likes it), a space on a shelf, or in a cupboard or wardrobe where the cat has access.

So do a quick survey of the places that are available to your cat as hiding places. Are they in busy parts of the house or does the cat also have hiding places in quieter rooms? Are they cat sized, or are they a bit too big? If your cat has outside access, do they also have safe hiding places in your yard or garden?

You can make existing hiding places more comfortable by adding a fleecy blanket or towel for the cat to curl up on.

And if you think your cat might not have enough spaces, see about providing some extra ones. It may be as simple as giving them a cardboard box and putting it on its side, or putting it upside down with a hole cut out for them to go in and out.

4. Use scents as enrichment

Did you know that your cat has an amazing nose, and on top of that they also have a vomeronasal organ that detects pheromones – chemical signals that have meaning to cats? This means that scent is far more important in your cat’s life than you realize.

When your cat rubs its head on you or the furniture, it is leaving pheromones behind. You may even notice a little brown mark on the wall where your cat rubs often. Don’t clean it up! Or at least don’t clean all of them up at once. Those familiar chemical signals that the cat is depositing help them to feel safe and secure.

Everyone is familiar with catnip toys, but there are other scents that many cats like too, so you could try valerian, silver vine or honeysuckle and see if your cat responds to those. Almost all cats will visibly respond to at least one of these scents.

A cat plays with a feather toy - one of 5 things to do for your cat today
Photo: Dmitry Nesterov / Shutterstock

You can find valerian in some cat toys, silver vine is available as a stick or powder, and honeysuckle as blocks of wood of various sizes. They may not be in your local pet store, so you may have to look for them online.

You can buy catnip that is mixed with other scents such as lavender, so if your cat likes catnip this is another way to provide different scents as enrichment.

In fact a recent study found that although only some cats respond to catnip by rolling around, other cats do respond, just in a passive way such as being in a Sphinx position or being less active and miaowing less (Espin-Iturbe et al 2017).

Another way to provide scent as enrichment if you have an indoor cat is to open the window for them to let them smell the air from outside. Obviously, do this in a safe way so they can’t escape – and remember that screens are not necessarily cat-safe. But you only need to open the window a chink to let the outside smells in.

5. Clean the litter tray

Did you notice how I saved the most glamorous one til last?!!

I know what you're thinking. The other four are all fun, and this one... not so much.

But the litter tray is a serious matter for cats. Many house-soiling issues are due to problems with the litter tray (but if your cat suddenly starts making a mess in the house, it’s important to see a vet in case a medical issue is the cause). It’s an important issue because inappropriate toileting behaviour is a common reason for cats to be surrendered to animal shelters.

26% of pet cat owners clean their litter box once a day, but 11% only clean it once a week and 5% less frequently than that (Howell et al 2016). So there is plenty of scope for improvement amongst the average cat owner. And it really doesn't take long.

Cats prefer a clean litter box. It’s not so much the smell they object to, but the presence of urine or faeces that is visually unappealing and physically in the way (Ellis et al 2017).

Cats will typically still use a litter box they are not very happy with, but signs they are not so keen on it include being hesitant to go in it, going in and then out of it, keeping a paw out of it while they eliminate, and spending a long time over elimination (McGowan et al 2017). This study also found that cats may hold their urine if they are not happy with their litter box, making them vulnerable to urinary tract infections.

So you should scoop your litter tray every day, but preferably twice a day, and clean the litter tray thoroughly once a week.

6. Bonus: Teach your cat to like their carrier

This is a bonus item because it is not something you can achieve in a day, especially if your cat is already scared of their carrier. Which they might be if it only ever predicts visits to the vet.

But one thing you can do today is get the carrier out, have a look at it and see if it’s suitable, leave it out somewhere so it becomes a normal thing – and make a plan to teach your cat to like it.

The best kind of carrier is one that is secure but where the top half can be detached from the bottom half. This means that at the vet, you can simply remove the top and the vet can examine the cat in the bottom of the carrier. Some cats will feel safer like this than if they have to come completely out of the carrier. (See more tips on how to help cats at the vet).

If the carrier always means an unpleasant trip to the vet, you can’t really blame a cat for not liking it. So you need to break that association. If your cat is terrified of the carrier you already have, you might find it best to start afresh with a new carrier.

Put a nice fleecy blanket or towel in the bottom so it is nice and cosy. And then leave it somewhere in the house where it will become a familiar thing. You might need to prop the door open so it can’t accidentally close behind the cat when they go in.

You can leave treats inside it to encourage your cat to go in. But for many cats even this will be too scary, so you may have to start by leaving treats in the general vicinity of the carrier. Once the cat is relaxed and comfortable collecting those treats, you can put treats a bit closer, until eventually the cat will approach the carrier.

This is a slow process. For a full explanation of how to teach your cat to like their carrier, I recommend this post by Sarah Ellis PhD. (You might like to read my interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis for more tips on training your cat).

Summary of tips for your cat

So there you have it – five things to do for your cat today, and a sixth one to work on over time. Play with your cat, use food toys, provide safe hiding places, use scent as enrichment, and remember to scoop the litter tray! Then start thinking about how to teach your cat to like their carrier.

These tips will provide enrichment for your cat, help your cat be more active and help them to feel safe and secure.

Of course, every cat is an individual and has their own preferences as all cat lovers know well. In the comments, let me know which are your cat’s favourite toys, and where is your cat’s favourite hiding place?

To learn more about how science can help you have a better relationship with your pet, subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.


Alho, A. M., Pontes, J., & Pomba, C. (2016). Guardians' Knowledge and Husbandry Practices of Feline Environmental Enrichment. Journal of applied animal welfare science, 19(2), 115-125.
Bol, S., Caspers, J., Buckingham, L., Anderson-Shelton, G. D., Ridgway, C., Buffington, C. T., ... & Bunnik, E. M. (2017). Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria). BMC veterinary research, 13(1), 70.
Ellis, J. J., McGowan, R. T. S., & Martin, F. (2017). Does previous use affect litter box appeal in multi-cat households?. Behavioural Processes.
Ellis, J. J., Stryhn, H., Spears, J., & Cockram, M. S. (2017b). Environmental enrichment choices of shelter cats. Behavioural Processes.
Espín-Iturbe, L. T., Yañez, B. A. L., García, A. C., Canseco-Sedano, R., Vázquez-Hernández, M., & Coria-Avila, G. A. (2017). Active and passive responses to catnip (Nepeta cataria) are affected by age, sex and early gonadectomy in male and female cats. Behavioural Processes, 142, 110-115.
Howell, T. J., Mornement, K., & Bennett, P. C. (2016). Pet cat management practices among a representative sample of owners in Victoria, Australia. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 11, 42-49.
McGowan, R. T., Ellis, J. J., Bensky, M. K., & Martin, F. (2017). The ins and outs of the litter box: A detailed ethogram of cat elimination behavior in two contrasting environments. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
Strickler, B. L., & Shull, E. A. (2014). An owner survey of toys, activities, and behavior problems in indoor cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9(5), 207-214.

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Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Why Do Dogs Play?

A new paper finds there are many reasons why dogs play – and play is not always a sign of good welfare.

Play is important to puppies, like these Cardigan Welsh Corgis, for several reasons - and doesn't always indicate good welfare

There’s nothing cuter than watching puppies play together. But why do they do it? It turns out play has several functions, not just one. A new review, by Rebecca Sommerville (Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh) et al, considers four theories about why dogs play, and finds evidence in support of three of them.

Rebecca Sommerville told me in an email,
“We found, by reviewing a large body of research, that play is not one type of behaviour – there are several types that each serve a different purpose. Despite popular belief, a dog playing is not necessarily a sign that everything is well. Playing alone can be a sign of boredom, whilst play with other dogs has potential to be one sided. Regular, real play between a dog and owner does not revolve around commands, and is important to strengthen their bond.”

Four theories of why dogs play

The paper looks at four different theories of why play has evolved in dogs.

Two dogs playing - but why did play evolve in dogs?

One theory is that play helps puppies learn motor skills. If you look at what dogs do in play, they chase each other, roll around on the floor in play fights, mount, pick up objects with their mouth and tug, bite or shake them. Puppies learn how hard they can bite their playmates (acquired bite inhibition), and to play bow to keep the play going for longer. Through these play activities, they are learning real skills relevant to how to move their bodies, acquire food, and defend themselves in fights. The scientists say this theory explains a lot of things about play, but is not the full story.

Another theory is that play is training for unexpected things to happen: it’s through play that dogs know how to right their bodies when knocked off balance and how to cope when something surprising startles them. According to this theory, changes in the brain and in hormone levels during play help dogs learn how to cope with real-life stressors. This theory explains the fact that dogs like new toys but are cautious of new things that aren’t toys. It also explains the way dogs self-handicap during play and put themselves at a disadvantage; this can be seen as practising behaviour they may need later on as a way to defuse real aggression. But again, this theory only explains some aspects of play.

The third theory they found evidence for is the idea that play promotes social cohesion between dogs. Play helps dogs cooperate as a group, and is about building social relationships – in which humans also feature. Dogs prefer to play with people they know, and they are more likely to approach the winner of a game, but when they win a game against a person it does not lead to increased ‘dominance’. So play is about building cooperative relationships, not social rank. But again, this theory does not explain everything about play.

The fourth theory the scientists considered is that play is just a side-effect of other processes, such as having too much energy or a deprived environment that does not provide stimulation. However, poor environments are linked with the development of stereotypies (repetitive behaviours), rather than play. If play was linked to too much energy, then playfulness wouldn’t be a consistent trait in dogs. Because play is something humans like, it may have been selected for in domestication or have arisen as a result of breeding for other traits, such as neotenic (baby-like) features. But play does not seem to just be a by-product of other things.

Play and welfare in dogs

There is an increasing emphasis on positive welfare and so the paper also considers the welfare implications of different types of play. Individual play with toys is an important enrichment activity that is rewarding in its own right and may reduce stress, but in some cases it may reflect poor welfare (e.g. poor environment, not enough attention from humans).

The scientists say that social play with other dogs is good for canine welfare, although there may be risks of injuries if play turns into aggression. Dogs that do not get enough play opportunities when they are young may show inappropriate behaviour in adult play with dogs or humans. If it is misinterpreted by the owner as actual aggression and the dog is given fewer play opportunities as a result, this may lead to reduced welfare.

Adult dogs -  like these two Golden Retrievers - still play. More on why dogs play.
Photos: Natalia Fedosova; top, Johan Georg Theron. Both Shutterstock.

Finally, dogs also like to play with humans, and would prefer to play with a human than on their own when there is a toy around. The scientists distinguish between indirect play (when the human moves a toy for the dog – playing with a flirt pole would be an example) and direct play when the human and dog are directly playing together. Play with humans can be rewarding in itself and may also improve the human-canine bond.

However, there are also times when play with a human may not be a sign of good welfare: when dogs make a playful move as a way of avoiding something unpleasant from the human, or in cases where the play itself is stressful, as has been found for games of tug that are also full of commands and discipline rather than being spontaneous and affectionate.

The researchers say that although several studies have looked at different types of reward in dog training, research is needed on the use of play as positive reinforcement. They say that using play to promote the adoption of shelter dogs is another example of using play to improve welfare.

So why do dogs play?

Ultimately, dogs play because it helps them learn motor skills, build social cohesion and prepare for unexpected things to happen so they can cope better when they do. Different stages of play may have different functions, with the beginning and end of a play bout especially important for social cohesion, while the main part of play is most important for learning motor skills and preparing for the unexpected.

"Regular, real play between a dog and owner does not revolve around commands,
and is important to strengthen their bond.”

The review did not find evidence for the idea that play is simply a side-effect of other processes. But it did find that play per se is not necessarily a sign of good welfare; in some cases, it may indicate welfare issues.

The scientists also say that other possible reasons for play need more research, such as whether or not it helps with cognitive development or coping with stress.

This is a fascinating paper. The idea that play is multi-faceted and was probably selected for in domestication is also supported by Bradshaw et al’s (2015) review of play behaviour in adult dogs. I look forward to seeing a lot more research on how and why dogs play!

What does it mean for your dog?

Although the paper does not specifically consider the implications for dog owners, there are some things to bear in mind.

Play fulfils several important functions. So next time you see puppies playing, remember it’s not just fun – they are practising useful skills and building social relationships.

It can be hard for people to find suitable (safe) playmates for new puppies, so a good puppy class should include opportunities for play. This will help your puppy to develop useful skills for later in life. Play should be a positive experience, so expect the dog trainer to monitor it carefully. If at any time you are not sure if your puppy is enjoying it, do a consent test: separate the puppies and see if they both want to return to play or not.

Remember that puppies coming from commercial breeding establishments may not have had many play opportunities with their littermates because of the environment in which they are raised (see: potential causes of problems in pet store puppies). In this case, it may be even more important to have play sessions during puppy class so they can learn appropriate canine social skills. (Note that puppy class is just for puppies, not adult dogs, because of the risks of infection and in case the adult dogs are not well socialized).

If you have one of those adult dogs who is lacking in play skills or bullies other dogs, a good dog trainer will be able to help. Kristi Benson CTC explains how to improve play skills here. Since dog training is not regulated, make sure you find a good dog trainer.

Of course the main take-away for dog owners is that it’s important to play with your dog because it helps to strengthen the human-animal bond.

You can follow the first author, Rebecca Sommerville, on twitter.

For more posts like this, subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.

How do you like to play with your dog?

Bradshaw, J. W., Pullen, A. J., & Rooney, N. J. (2015). Why do adult dogs ‘play’?. Behavioural processes, 110, 82-87.
Sommerville, R., O’Connor, E. A., & Asher, L. (2017). Why do dogs play? A review of the function of play in the domestic dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

You might also like:
Playtime after training improves a dogs memory
The function of play bows in dog and wolf puppies

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Sunday, 5 November 2017

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club November 2017

"It will forever change how we see our aquatic cousins - the pet goldfish included."

A cup of coffee and a notebook by a pool full of koi. What a Fish Knows is the book for November 2017.

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for November 2017 is What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe.

From the back cover,
"Do fishes think? Do they really have three-second memories? And can they recognize the humans who peer back at them from above the surface of the water? In What a Fish Knows, the myth-busting ethologist Jonathan Balcombe addresses these questions and more, taking us under the sea, through streams and estuaries, and to the other side of the aquarium glass to reveal the surprising capabilities of fishes. Teeming with insights and exciting discoveries, What a Fish Knows offers a thoughtful appraisal of our relationships with fishes and the planet's increasingly imperiled marine life. It will forever change how we see our aquatic cousins - the pet goldfish included."

Why not join us in reading the book? You can leave your comments below!

You can also follow Jonathan Balcombe on twitter.

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Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Dogs Sleep Badly After a Stressful Experience

Dogs fall asleep faster but get less deep sleep after a bad experience compared to after a good experience.

Dogs sleep badly after a stressful experience
Photo: Karen Laventure (Shutterstock)

We all know the feeling when something bad happens in the day and then we just can’t sleep at night. It turns out that, just like humans, dogs’ sleep is affected by bad experiences – but the effects are not quite the same.

A new paper by Dr. Anna Kis (Hungarian Academy of Sciences) (including members of the Family Dog Project) took EEG measurements of dogs sleeping after a good or bad experience.

While humans take longer to fall asleep after a bad day, the dogs fell asleep more quickly after a bad experience than after a good one. This is thought to be a protective response to stress. But, just like humans, dogs did not sleep as well after the bad experience, showing their sleep was disturbed.

16 pet dogs took part in the study, which took place over 3 sessions. The first session was a practice one so the dogs could get used to the equipment and being in the lab. In the next two sessions, the dogs had a good or bad experience, followed by 3 hours of sleep. Half the dogs had the good experience first followed by the bad experience, and half the dogs had the bad experience followed by good. At least 5 days elapsed between these two visits to the lab.

The good experience was 6 minutes in which the dog was petted every time it went to the owner, was spoken to nicely, and played fetch or tug depending which it preferred.

The bad experience also lasted 6 minutes and started with the dog having their leash tied to the wall and being left alone in the room. After 2 minutes, the owner came back in and ignored the dog, but did go stand near it. Then an experimenter came in and approached the dog in a threatening manner before stopping, sitting on the ground, and looking at the dog for 3 minutes without responding to it.

After the good or bad experience, the dog was taken to another room and prepared for the sleep measurements. It took about 10 minutes to put on the electrodes for the EEG recordings, and this was done in a manner reasonably consistent with the good or bad experience the dog had just had. So either the dog got lots of petting and nice talk while it happened, or the experimenter ignored the dog as much as they could during the process.

During the three hours after the bad experience, the dogs got an average of 72 minutes sleep and the duration of a sleep cycle was 56 minutes. After the good experience, the dogs took longer to go to sleep, and on average they got 65 minutes sleep with a sleep cycle of 51 minutes.

The different stages of sleep were also affected by the dogs’ experiences. After the negative experience, dogs had a longer period of REM sleep, which is characterized by rapid eye movements (hence the name). The researchers had predicted a change in the amount of REM sleep because it has been associated with emotional processing.

Non-REM sleep was higher after the positive experiences. This is when the deepest sleep occurs, so after negative experiences the dogs got less deep sleep.

The researchers also found that the dogs’ personalities were linked to how they behaved with the owner. For example, dogs that were rated as more agreeable and less open hid behind their owner more when the experimenter was sitting and looking at them in the negative experience. In turn, some of these behaviour differences were linked to changes in the sleep cycle.

What this means is that individual differences in how the dogs responded to the experiences were also reflected in changes in their sleep. The scientists suggest further research on this topic, and on links between sleep and welfare in dogs.

This is the first time that good or bad experiences have been shown to affect how well a dog sleeps.

The paper is open access and you can read it via the link below.

Kis, A., Gergely, A., Galambos, Á., Abdai, J., Gombos, F., Bódizs, R., & Topál, J. (2017, October). Sleep macrostructure is modulated by positive and negative social experience in adult pet dogs. In Proc. R. Soc. B (Vol. 284, No. 1865, p. 20171883). The Royal Society. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.1883

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