28 May 2014

What was the Role of Cats in Anglo Saxon England?

Fascinating new research investigates what the archaeological record tells us about people and cats in Anglo Saxon times. Was the human-feline relationship very different from today?

The historical role of cats in Anglo Saxon England
Photo: aleksandr hunta / Shutterstock

New research by Kristopher Poole (University of Nottingham) investigates the role of cats in Anglo Saxon England. The period from AD 410 until the Norman invasion of 1066 was a time of great change. The Roman Empire had lost its control and many people immigrated to England, particularly from northern Europe. The urban population grew as small towns developed, and the spread of Christianity brought changes in people’s belief systems. What kind of relationship did people have with cats during this time?

Fur is probably not the first thing you think of, but evidence from bones suggests that some cats – especially young ones – were used for fur. It isn’t known if the cats were bred for this or if they were captured. Cat bones found at Coppergate in York suggest the cats were skinned. Poole says, “It would therefore seem that there was at least some commercial exploitation of cat furs in towns, although exactly how extensive this was is uncertain. Notably, none of the cut marks on cat bones from this period indicate that the cat was seen as a food source.”

Mousing is an obvious use for cats, and was probably especially important in the urban areas. A tenth century Welsh text, The Laws of Hywel Dda, mentions this role when it describes what is important in a cat: “that it do not devour its kittens, and that it have ears, eyes, teeth and claws, and that it be a good mouser”. Mousers were probably not fed much, in order to keep them hungry for their work. 

And it seems that some cats were kept as pets. One source of evidence is that individual cats are given names in texts from the time. A famous example of this is the ninth century poem Pangur Bán, written by an Irish monk and found in an Austrian monastery, about a cat called white Pangur (see here for two translations).

There is also evidence in the bones. At a place called Bishopstone in East Sussex, evidence from isotopes shows that one cat had regularly eaten a diet containing fish, while the other two cats found there had not. So it appears this particular cat was deliberately fed by humans, and therefore perhaps kept as a pet. 

But as we all know, cats have a mind of their own. Poole says, “there are clear examples of cats acting in ways which conflicted with human desires. In some cases, the cat may be involved in the ‘theft’ of food. Irish law codes from the seventh to eighth centuries mention the recompense a cat’s owner must pay to another human if their animal had stolen their food. Equally, in a situation familiar today, cats could defecate in unacceptable places, such as on the rushes of a floor. This was also dealt with under seventh to eighth century Irish law, with the cat owner having to compensate the landowner.” 

The research looks at two key types of evidence, the archaeological evidence from bones, and writings from that time. Neither gives a perfect picture, especially since cat bones are small and may have been missed at some sites, while textual sources relate to societal elites rather than everyday experience. But taken together, they provide an interesting picture of the role of cats in Anglo-Saxon England.

Domestic cats (whether actually domestic or feral) were the main type of cat in England during this time and were likely brought to England during the Iron Age or possibly earlier. Lynx were also present, since a lynx skeleton from this period was found in Kinsey Cave, Yorkshire. There were wild cats too, mostly in rural areas, and it is possible they interbred with domestic cats to some extent.

Old English differentiates between male and female cats (cat and catte respectively). It seems unlikely that specific cat breeds existed, although cats will have come in different colours, since Irish texts from this time refer to cats that are white, grey, ginger, and black with white. 

Archaeological sites show cat bones in very small numbers compared to those of other animals such as cattle, sheep, horses and even dogs. Nonetheless, cats seem to have existed at most human settlements, and especially in urban environments. 

The paper is open access, available here.

How would you describe your relationship with cats?

P.S. Enrichment tips for cats that many people miss and the role animals play in people's lives (evidence from the Mass Observation project).
Poole, K. (2014). The Contextual Cat: Human–Animal Relations and Social Meaning in Anglo-Saxon England Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory DOI: 10.1007/s10816-014-9208-9

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21 May 2014

Did Dogs, Cats and Cows Predict the Magnitude 9 Earthquake in Japan in 2011?

Is it possible that animals had advance warning of the Tohoku earthquake?

A black and tan Shiba Inu by a lake with Mount Fuji behind
Photo: Paul Atkinson / Shutterstock
There have long been reports of animals behaving strangely before large quakes, including an account of snakes, weasels and rats leaving home prior to an earthquake in Greece in 373BC. But there is still a lack of scientific evidence.  A new study in Japan investigates pet owners’ reports of cat and dog behaviour, and changes in dairy milk production, before the magnitude 9 earthquake in 2011.

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan on 11th March 2011 was devastating. After the quake, in December 2011 and January 2012, Japanese scientists Hiroyuki Yamauchi et al (2014) conducted an internet survey of pet owners. As well as obtaining demographic information about pets, they asked about any unusual behaviour exhibited in the minutes, hours and days prior to the earthquake. The checklist included things like howling and barking (for dogs), vocalizing (for cats), trembling, being restless, and escaping. 

The questionnaire was distributed nationally, and postal codes were used to say how far away the animal lived from the epicentre. 1,259 dog owners and 703 cat owners took part. 

In addition, the scientists took advantage of existing data about the amount of milk produced by dairy cows. The quantity of milk each cow provides every day is recorded automatically at milking facilities. 86 Holstein dairy cows were used in three different locations: Ibaraki prefecture (340km from the epicentre), and at Kanagawa and Shizuoka prefectures (further away). Milk production for each day from 1st Jan 2011 until 31st March 2011 was examined. 

The reasoning is that if cows are able to predict an earthquake, they will be stressed and make less milk. The analysis took account of the length of time since calving and the temperature and humidity, as these factors are known to affect milk yield. 

Animals might detect an earthquake ahead of people for several reasons, according to the researchers, including that cats and dogs have a wider hearing range and better scent detection than humans. They say, “possible candidate stimuli include changes in atmospheric pressure, changes in gravity, ground deformation (ground uplift and tilt changes), acoustic signals and vibrations due to the generation of micro cracks, ground water level changes, and emanations of gases and chemical substances.”

The geographical range of dogs and cats in this study was between 140km from the epicentre to 1950km away (cats) and 2350km away (dogs). The results showed that unexpected behaviours were reported by 18.7% of dog owners and 16.4% of cat owners. 

Of those who reported unusual behaviours in dogs, they were most commonly observed immediately prior to the earthquake, in the seconds and minutes before it hit (60% of cases). 16.7% said it happened from 1 to a few hours before. In cats with unusual behaviour, 44.6% showed it immediately prior and 30.4% in the few hours before the earthquake. Some owners reported changes 6 or more days before (6.3% of dogs and 2.9% of cats with unusual behaviour).

The most common reports were of dogs and cats being restless and wanting to be near the owner. In dogs, most unusual behaviours in the minutes and hours before the earthquake occurred closer to the epicentre. For cats the only effect of distance was 2-3 days before the earthquake.

In the immediate area of the quake there were many pre-shocks (including one of magnitude 7.3 on 9th March). It is possible that cats and dogs were responding to these. However the timing of some unusual behaviours (within a few hours of the quake) is interesting.

The problem with reports after-the-fact is that people may have misremembered. This is where the data on milk yield comes in. In Kanagawa and Shizuoka Prefectures, further from the epicentre, there were no changes in milk production in the time leading up to the quake. However, in Ibaraki Prefecture, the cows produced significantly less milk on 11th February, and on the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th March. 

The scientists say, “the facility in Ibaraki showed lowered milk production 6 days before the EQ [earthquake]. The decrease in milk yield continued for four days. This might be because Ibaraki was the closest of the three institutes to the epicentre. If so, milk yield might be useful as an EQ precursor. Furthermore, these decreases of milk-yields were probably not caused by fear responses to the EQ’s shaking, because no seismic swarms … occurred near the location of the institute in Ibaraki Prefecture from the 5 to 8 March 2011.”

These results suggest it might be possible for animals to detect an impending earthquake, but further research is needed to confirm this and to understand the mechanism by which it occurs.

Have you ever noticed unusual animal behaviour before an earthquake?

Yamauchi, H., Uchiyama, H., Ohtani, N., & Ohta, M. (4). Unusual animal behaviour preceding the 2011 earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tohoku, Japan: A way to predict the approach of large earthquakes Animals, 131-145

14 May 2014

Guinea Pigs and Domestication

Domestication changes animals in many ways. We still don’t fully understand how – or when, or where – the dog was domesticated. But it turns out the guinea pig is the guinea pig of domestication research as scientists compare guinea pigs to their wild cousins, cavies.

Comparing adolescent guinea pigs to wild cavies
Photo: Ase / Shutterstock

A new paper by Benjamin Zipser et al (University of Münster, Germany) compares adolescent guinea pigs and wild cavies. Previous research has found differences between adult guinea pigs and cavies in things like sociability, aggression, and exploratory behaviour.  But no one had found out whether these differences were already present in adolescent guinea pigs, until now.

The word cavy is sometimes used to refer to different members of the guinea pig family, including the domestic guinea pig. The wild cavies in this study were Cavia aperea, also known as the Brazilian guinea pig.  It is found in the grasslands of several South American countries including Brazil, Argentina and Peru. They mainly eat grass but will also eat leaves, seeds and roots, as seen in this short video clip.  They have many predators especially when they are juveniles. Humans also eat them as food.
Ten guinea pigs and eight cavies took part in the study. Only male animals were used, and all the animals were lab-raised. The cavies were bred from a lineage that began with wild animals and now, over 50 generations later, the cavies are still apparently like their wild relatives and not domesticated.

It’s interesting to note that, just as dogs come in many different colours, domestication has led to many different coat markings in guinea pigs.  However cavies are all the same colour. The researchers dyed markings into their fur for identification purposes. 

Guinea pigs and cavies were tested in a variety of situations, including a stress test, an exploration test, and sociability tests with an infant and an adult female (the female was in the early stages of pregnancy to ensure no mating behaviour). Each testing period took place over a number of days. Animals were tested in early adolescence (age 51-62 days) and again in late adolescence (age 120-132 days) when they are sexually mature.

The results showed that wild cavies are more exploratory and take more risks than domestic guinea pigs. When put in an open field, the cavies explored further, and when put in a dark box they came out of the box and spent more time in the light. Some of the guinea pigs did not explore at all. 

There were differences in hormonal stress response as measured by cortisol reactivity. The researchers say this reflects the difficult environment in which wild cavies live; their body’s response to stress is an adaptation which enables them to survive. 

The researchers say, “In man-made housing systems, guinea pigs are usually provided with all relevant resources and hence the selection pressure for high levels of exploration and risk-taking was removed. The humans who kept cavies at their homes probably chose (or were only able to catch and keep) animals that were less prone to flee the artificial housing in their homes – that is, they selected animals with less exploratory and risk-taking tendencies.”

The domestic guinea pigs were more sociable. Although both cavies and guinea pigs were interested in the unfamiliar infant and female, the guinea pigs engaged in more social interaction with the infant and more courtship behaviours towards the female. Sociability is a useful feature of domestication because it means people can keep many guinea pigs in a relatively small space, whereas in the wild cavies have much larger territories.   

The researchers say the wish to keep many animals “certainly forced the first breeders of wild cavies to choose and select for the most agreeable and least aggressive individuals since otherwise it would not have been possible to keep a reasonably large stock of animals in captivity.”

The study shows that the kind of differences previously found between adult guinea pigs and wild cavies are also present in adolescent guinea pigs. Thus, even though sexual maturity brings behavioural and hormonal changes, guinea pigs already have a bio-behavioural profile suited to domestication at a young age.
What do you like about guinea pigs as pets?

Zipser, B., Schleking, A., Kaiser, S., & Sachser, N. (2014). Effects of domestication on biobehavioural profiles: a comparison of domestic guinea pigs and wild cavies from early to late adolescence Frontiers in Zoology, 11 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1742-9994-11-30
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07 May 2014

What Do People Look for When Adopting a Dog?

A study of over 2000 shelter dogs investigates the physical and behavioural characteristics that help dogs get rehomed. Some of the results may surprise you.

Close-up of a happy young boy with his pet dog
Photo: Melissa King / Shutterstock

A recent study by Christina Siettou et al (University of Kent) uses techniques from consumer analysis to gain a better understanding of people’s choices when adopting a dog from a shelter.  The researchers looked at the different characteristics of dogs waiting for homes and compared it to the likelihood that a new home is found. 

The online profiles of 2,037 dogs, described as available on the Dogs Trust website, were tracked from first appearance until they were adopted. Dogs Trust was chosen because it has 18 re-homing centres across the UK and takes care of more than 16,000 dogs every year. Their rehoming procedure includes a thorough behavioural assessment that typically lasts 7 days, including time spent in ‘real life’ rooms at the shelter that mimic homes. Dogs Trust also have facilities where dogs can receive specialist behavioural training, have a respite from kennels, or even live out their lives; they say “we never destroy a healthy dog.”

Some American studies (though not all) have found that black dogs and cats take longer to be adopted than those with different coloured fur. It’s not clear why this is the case. However, in this study, coat colour made no difference to the likelihood of adoption.

Another factor that did not make a significant difference was the presence of an existing medical condition. This seems surprising. However, Dogs Trust has a scheme that gives financial support to people who rehome a dog with a medical problem. These results suggest the scheme is successful in encouraging people to consider such dogs. Perhaps also some medical conditions are not considered problematic by potential adopters.

So what did make a difference? The size of a dog was important, with small dogs more likely to be adopted, and large dogs the least preferred. Not surprisingly, age was also a factor - puppies were more likely to be chosen. Pedigree dogs were also preferred over cross breeds.

Behavioural characteristics were important too. Being friendly to children, friendly to other dogs, and friendly to other pets all led to higher rates of adoption. 

In contrast, needing training or having behavioural problems led to less likely adoption. This is despite the fact that Dogs Trust provides extensive training and behaviour advice and support, including classes at adoption centres and individual sessions in adopters’ homes. It could be that potential adopters were not fully aware of this support, or that they were still not willing or able to take on the commitment required.

This study shows the importance of training and behaviour, both within the shelter environment and following adoption. Unfortunately many rescues and shelters around the world provide limited behavioural support, or rely on outdated training methods. This could be due to lack of resources or a belief that behaviour does not fall within their remit. But, if behaviour is a significant factor influencing adoption, then it is intertwined with welfare issues.

The researchers say “Shelter personnel could derive useful information regarding preferences for dog characteristics that could help in understanding some of the factors that influence the adopter’s choice in selecting a dog. More specifically, this article provides quantitative evidence of what the shelter personnel may intuitively know.  This information could therefore serve as a guide for which dog characteristics to highlight when advertising dogs for adoption. Highlighting a preferred characteristic for each dog could potentially positively influence a possible adoption even if the dog has some ‘undesirable’ traits.”

For example, since friendliness to children, dogs and other pets were all important, this could be highlighted in the description of a friendly dog.

This study used a large sample from an organization that is the largest dog welfare charity in the UK. However, in other countries – or at different locations within the same country – there may be some variation in what adopters want. Shelters can use their own records to check what is preferred, or not, in their own community.

This is a fascinating study that sheds light on people’s preferences when looking to adopt a shelter dog. The results will help rescues and shelters develop their adoption programs. 

What do you like to see in descriptions of shelter dogs, and what do you find off-putting?

P.S. Why do people choose certain dogs?

Siettou, C., Fraser, I., & Fraser, R. (2014). Investigating Some of the Factors That Influence “Consumer” Choice When Adopting a Shelter Dog in the United Kingdom Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 17 (2), 136-147 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2014.883924

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