Hello Friends, and happy weekend! I hope this finds you and yours well in all ways as we are in full swing of winter. Here in the northeast we are preparing for a major winter storm, so this will be a (relatively) short post.
Let’s get to it! It’s Caturday! So let’s talk cats.
If you are fortunate to be the guardian of a feline, then you are blessed beyond measure. Being “owned” by a cat does have its benefits; albeit frustrations and confusions, too. But any confusion and frustrations are easily mitigated when we understand the WHY behind behaviors.
If you have been flowing with this blog for a while now, you know that house cats are:
If you have been paying attention, then you now know that all house cats need:
Proper, positive socialization to a variety of sights, sounds, and scents
Daily mental stimulation
Ability to exercise their natural instinct to hunt
Acceptable outlets for their natural behaviors
To feel safe in and around your home
Litter boxes that are spacious, clean, and the right fit for each feline’s lifestage
Appropriate and species-specific nutrition
Regular, species-specific veterinary care
Basic positive (fun) training time
Knowing all of this is only part of the pussycat puzzle. Innate Behaviors are often at the heart of these needs.
‘People have forgotten this truth,’ the fox said. ‘But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.’ ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
All in the Instincts!
Many of the behaviors we observe our feline family members displaying are closely controlled by genes. These behaviors are called innate behaviors. They are behaviors that are inborn; naturally occurring in all members of a species. Within each species, Innate behaviors are predictable. These behaviors can be performed in response to a cue (changing of the seasons, daylight, etc.) without prior experience /exposure to a particular cue.
Think of them as reflex responses/actions. Unlike behaviors such as learning to ride a bike, tie your shoe, or brush your teeth, Innate behaviors do not have to be learned or practiced.
Innate behaviors are instinctive.
They are controlled by genes and always occur in the same way.
Innate behaviors do not have to be learned or practiced.
Innate behaviors generally involve basic life functions, so it’s important that they be performed correctly.
These kinds of behaviors are also called instinctive behaviors. An instinct is the ability of an animal to perform a behavior the first time it is exposed to something that causes a response, within their body.
Our cat committee is currently creating a book for families that will discuss more of this in detail. But that’s the basics of what you need to now about today’s topic.
There is one innate behavior I would like to talk about today that really fascinates me about felines. And I really think you’ll enjoy it. It’s called Caching.
Have you ever noticed your cat trying to cover his/her food? All of our cats do it after they have finished eating if there is leftover food. Well, let’s be honest: Knox never leaves any food. -Pretty sure he’s a direct descent of Garfield.
Cats who cover their food are not unusual critters. Many more species do this behavior than most realize!
Critters Who Cache
Many animals practice the behavior of caching. Here are a few examples:
Caching behavior is the storage of food in locations hidden from the sight of both conspecifics (animals of the same or closely related species) and members of other species. For some species, the function of caching is to store food in times of surplus for times when food is less plentiful. However, there is evidence that some caching behavior is done to ripen the food. Foxes and squirrels tend to spread out their food in small caches (“scatter hoard”) so that, although one may be discovered by another animal, enough will remain.
Why Cats Cache
Cats are predators and prey. Cats who live in the wild, (feral cats, cougars, panthers, etc.) often attempt to bury uneaten food or cover a recently killed carcass. It’s believed wildcats do this to:
avoid attracting any predators to the area
attempt to not alert potential prey that a feline hunter is in the vicinity
Once the wildcat has eaten his/her fill of their prey, the cougar will cover their prey with substrate (grass, leaves, or other ground material) to protect it from spoiling or from being eaten by other animals. The cougar will usually remain in the area near his/her cache for several days, occasionally returning to feed on the carcass.
Bobcats will cover the remains of a large kill with debris such as snow, leaves, twigs or grass. The bobcat will revisit the carcass and eat again. Panthers will rake leaves and twigs over a carcass to hide the carcass from scavengers. This behavior is very common and is part of a natural and healthy wildcat. Check out these fascinating felines caching their food in the wild!
A Caching Cougar In
Below is a time-lapse video an adult female mountain lion
who has been followed by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project. This cougar is in
northwest Wyoming, caching a mule deer she killed:
In winter, it’s common for cougars to lose access to at least half of every elk they kill. Cougars tend to feed on one side of an elk at a time, and by the time they are finished with one side, the other can be wedged beneath a solid layer of compressed snow and ice, and completely inaccessible. -Mark Elbroch, Teton Cougar Project
This is important to realize because it helps us understand the foraging ecology of cougars. Cougars need to kill a specific amount of meat to meet their energetic demands for living, but they kill much more than this. In summer, bears steal their kills, and in winter, cold weather and snow steal their food. Thus, cougars are often unable to consume all of what they kill, and so they must kill again more quickly. -Mark Elbroch
On Nov 2, 2015 a hunter spotted a cougar caching her prey:
Mountain lions typically cache their kills beneath a mound of snow but when temperatures drop precipitously at night, this behavior frequently backfires. Unlike foxes, coyotes, and wolves, cougars lack the strong feet and stout claws for intensive excavation. Thus, when snows become thick ice that hinders their ability to feed, cougars abandon their kills to hunt again.
Habitats Created from
Most people think of beavers as ecological engineers, building
dams, and creating new habitats from their creations, but a new study shows mountain lions modify their
environments in a similar way.
Unlike wolves, mountain lions leave large intact pieces of dead meat on
the landscape that draw lots of species that then distribute those nutrients
far and wide. It is so important to ecosystem health to maintain carrion on the
landscape which supports a huge diversity of wildlife through supplemental
feeding, through maintenance of invertebrate community. It just goes on and on.
– Mark Elbroch, the Director of the Puma Project
I love this video below.
It’s rare footage of a subadult female cougar. In the video she’s just waking from a long
nap, and is slightly disoriented … A bit
later she is caching the elk carcass she discovered and claimed as her own.
House Cats Who Cache
Caching behavior is also quite common in house cats. A lot of folks think this is because their cat doesn’t like the food, but in fact, it’s an innate behavior inherited from their ancestors.
Even the comfy couch cats who have never set paw outside retains this feline instinct. A feline’s natural instinct is to cover food from scavengers or potential threats that might be tracking the scent. Unlike their wild cousins and dogs, House Cats are not scavengers; they are both predator and prey, so they don’t bury their leftover food to consume later; with house cats, it’s for protective purposes. But because all cats are individuals within the species, the degree to which the cat attempts to hide/bury the food depends on the individual cat’s comfort level and concern for exposed uneaten food.
What Caching Behavior Looks Like In House Cats: The cat is burying something. The cat is pawing at the carpet, kitchen tile, or dragging her front paw on the floor around their food mat, puzzle feeder, or bowl. The cat may become so focused on burying the food that he/she pushes the food mat/plate around. Some cats may pull a blanket, tissue paper, or food mat over their leftovers, if these items are nearby.
House Cats Caching Food
In this short video you can see one of our feline family members covering his food, and how similar this behavior is to cougars:
Become the Observer of Behavior.
Frustrating felines, puzzling pussycats, and bewildering behaviors common in homes with house cats. But all behavior has roots. Either it’s learned or innate. Caching is just one example of how we so often misunderstand cats and mislabel cat behavior. We label the behavior, make it wrong, or make fun of it. But this particular caching behavior works for cats; it serves an important purpose. Once we begin to understand that all behavior serves a purpose, we gain a new perspective.
We gain compassion.
We know that wildcats and house cats are learning all the time. We can choose to learn as well. It’s up to us as stewards of Mother Earth, and guardians of house cats to learn how to show respect, better communicate with them, listen better to them, and to learn something new from them every day.
“Reality is always kinder than the stories we tell about it.” – Byron Katie
A Matter of Misperceptions
Cougars, like house cats, are often misunderstood. The video below is a rare and intimate glimpse into the family lives of America’s second-largest cats. The film debunks long-held perceptions of cougars as solitary, anti-social animals and reveals their social and caring side: This footage was gathered by the conservation group Teton Cougar Project, revealing a family who is playful, affectionate, and interdependent. The footage also shows that sometimes, adult female cougars adopt orphaned kittens that would otherwise perish.
It shows how behaviors are passed down from one generation to the next, how young kittens learn from interactions with their mother and siblings, exhibiting behaviors such as stalking, caching and sharing meals.
I invite you to watch this short film, “The Secret Life of Mountain Lions”:
Use your voice for kindness, your ears for compassion, your hands for charity, your mind for truth, and your heart for love.
The other day I was taking a break from writing ourbook trilogy by tweetering around on twitter (another one of my bestdisplacement behaviors). 😉 While I was out there I came across a very cool post from Panthera, so I was inspired to learn more. I’ve been following their great work ever since a dear friend became their C.O.O., but this particular project really got my attention. It was not only about who cougars are choosing to cuddle with, but where and why.
If you are not yet aware, Panthera is not only the name of the genus within the Felidae family; Panthera is also the only organization in the world that is devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and their landscapes! Seriously. How amazing is that!? You will be stunned at the incredible conservation work they are doing around the globe, so be sure to check them out! Below is their mission statement.
Panthera’s mission is to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific leadership and global conservation action. We have brought together the world’s leading wild cat experts to direct and implement effective conservation strategies for the world’s largest and most endangered cats: tigers, lions, jaguars and snow leopards. Our approach to wild cat conservation is rooted in science and based upon decades of first hand field experience. We seek a future in which the world’s 37 wild cat species have the necessary and ongoing protection from human and environmental threats to persist and thrive in the wild. Our vision sees endangered wild cat populations rebounded, critical habitats and core populations connected by genetic and biological corridors, and a global commitment to protect these iconic species through near and distant futures.
Ever since I began working around and managing captive groups of exotic cats back in the day, I have been head over heels in love with every species of wild feline. They never cease to teach me something new and incredible. And since I happen to adore house cats and appreciate the powerful genetic link, I thought this would be a fun post to share!
Now, if you are not familiar with the word Felidae, I can explain. Think of your family. You may not be close, but you are of the same lineage. Felidae is a lineage of carnivorans colloquially referred to as “cats.” Members of this family are called “felids.” So the term “cat” refers both to felids in general and domestic cats. Your house cat belongs to the Felidae family, just like Garth, the African lion, pictured above! Pretty cool, huh?
Felids are separated into two distinct subgroups: large cats and small cats. Some of these small cats, due to a hardening of the hyoid bone, have an inability to roar. But many of them purr (as you might have read about before). Felidae consists of 2 subfamilies: Pantherinae and Felinae. We humans don’t have subfamilies, (although I am sure some people view their younger, annoying siblings this way 😉 There are a number of genus within the Felidae family. Some feline biologists only acknowledge a few genera of felids, but most agree there are 18 genera (genus) and 36 species of Felidae.
Note: A “genus” is a rank in the biological classification/taxonomy. It stands above species, and below families. A genus can include more than one species. When biologists talk about a genus, they mean one or more species of animals or plants that are closely related to each other. Below is an easy rundown of the classification of the cougar which includes genus and family.
Beyond Cool Cats
But as cool as these wild cats are, it’s important to note that if we want to understand how to provide proper conditions for house cats, we need to look at the species as a whole. And if we want to support conservation efforts, it helps to understand and appreciate the species as a whole. This post serves to do just that. So grab your coffee, tea, water, or wine, and get comfy with your cuddle-bug! We are going to take a peek at one of the house cat’s kin: The Cougar!
The puma (Puma concolor) is also commonly known as the mountain lion, cougar, panther, or catamount. This species is the most widely distributed free-ranging land mammal in the Americas. They are currently found from Northern Canada to the Southern Andes. At the time of European contact, this species occurred through most of North, Central, and South America. Today, the cougar has the greatest natural distribution of any mammal in the Western Hemisphere except for man.
The cougar is the largest cat in the genus Felis. The cougar is comparable in size to the leopard. Length varies from 59 – 108 inches with a tail length of 21 – 36 inches (I am squealing as I am thinking of such a delightful tail!). Their height ranges from 23 – 28 inches at the shoulder. Weight can vary greatly: between 75 and 250 pounds.
Felis Concolor at a Glance:
Habitat: The cougar thrives in montane, coniferous forests, lowland tropical forests, swamps, grassland, dry brush country, or any other area with adequate cover and prey.
Distribution: Western North America from British Columbia and south Alberta south through west Wyoming to California and west Texas. Also south Texas, Louisiana, south Alabama, Tennessee, and peninsular Florida.
Eastern Texas to Florida – P.c.coryi –IUCN: Endangered, CITES:Appendix I
Northeastern US and southeastern Canada Cougar – P.c. couguar – IUCN: Endangered, CITES: Appendix I
Central American Cougar – P.c. costaricensis – CITES: Appendix I
Misc: The International Species Information Service lists the current estimated number at 334 in zoos worldwide, with 119 located in the U.S.
Common Ancestry of Cats
One of the major lessons I learned from working with wild cats during the day and then coming home at night to my house cats was life changing for us all: I realized was living alongside tiny tigers, wee wildcats, and house panthers. My feral cat was amazingly similar to the African wildcat. My playful black cat was not that different from the Black Panther. My sweet orange tabby was much like a tiny tiger. My grey cat was incredibly similar to the fearless cougar.
Everything from how they hunted, where they preferred to sleep, how they groomed, how they interacted with their species, other species, their prey, and even people were eerily similar. My house cats’ bodies, needs, behavior, choices, and personalities were not worlds away from these wild cats; they were living parallel lives in many ways.
It turns out, feline science shows they are more alike that most people realize. In fact, results of mitochondrial analysis indicates that all Felidae descended from a common ancestor. And genetic evidence indicates that our modern day house cats are descendants from at least five feline founders of a group of Wildcats from 9,000 – 10,000 years ago! Cats are considered only a semi-domesticated species, because many populations are not isolated from wildcats.
“We don’t think house cats are truly domesticated. We refer to them as “semi-domesticated. They only recently split off from wild cats, and some even still breed with their wild relatives. We believe we have created the first preliminary evidence that depicts domestic cats as not that far removed from wildcat populations.” – Wes Warren, professor of genomics at the Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis
What You Don’t Know
Now before you get all judgey about exotic cats being kept in captivity, there are facts that most folks don’t know about these felines. Many are captive born. Many are rescued. Some are confiscations from the illegal animal trade, (just like this tiger recently confiscated here in California) and they are now living in zoos. Some are clones! Some are on loan from other zoos for very specific breeding purposes to preserve their species.
Some were pets, like Chloe pictured below. She was horribly mutilated through a declawing procedure. She was unable to walk, stand upright, or put any pressure on her paw pads after the horrible procedure of declawing. Thankfully, she gained a new life at Audubon after my dear friend and talented veterinarian went to great lengths to reattach her tendons. Now she is thriving.
Animal care facilities, such as zoos are not out there capturing wild cats and bringing them into captivity. Most are assisting, breeding, and caring for these cats. They are being cared for in the best way possible in captive conditions. There is more going on behind the scenes at zoos than most people realize. 100% of these efforts (at AZA accredited zoos) are dedication towards education and conservation.
Then and Now
Back in the day, we were managing big cat species with the most recent data and research available. Today, nearly twenty years later, we have learned so much more! Thanks to advances in technology we are dispelling myths, finding new facts, and using field data to better understand these covert creatures (including what happens when a Male Puma Visits a Female & Her Kitten at their recent Kill)! 😮
These tremendous advances in conservation efforts, both in and out of zoos, are contributing to the success of these species in the wild. Much of these advances are due to the technology that’s now available to capture these elusive cats on camera.
When I look back to when I was a kid in the 70’s and remember that my go-to handheld device was the Etch A Sketch , I have to laugh. Now look at what we have available in 2018! It’s amazing. As technology has improved, not only have we enabled our society to stay more connected virtually, but our ability to study mysterious and obscure animal behavior has increased.
So this brings us to our focus today: Covert Cougars & Puma’s Preferred Beds!
Strange Feline Bed Fellows
Would it surprise you to learn that house cats choose to sleep in strange places for similar reasons that big cats in the wild choose to sleep in strange places? If you think about how closely related house cats are to their wild kin, it makes purrrfect sense!
Ever wonder why your cat wants to hide in a box, or why she chooses to snooze with a cuddle buddy? Thanks to folks who are studying wild felines in the field, we know why. It turns out, there is safety in numbers even with more solitary species, and bed selection sites are not random. Where wild cats and house cats choose to snooze is based on very particular preferences and the need to stay safe and survive! And pumas, like our house cats, are more social than previously thought!
An Extinct Subspecies
As much as I am excited about this post, I am deeply saddened. Before we go on, there is some sad news to report. Effective January, 22, 2018, the eastern puma (Felis concolor couguar) is extinct. My heart sank when I learned this. Eight decades after the last confirmed sighting, wildlife biologists have concluded that the eastern puma is no more.
To help you better understand how this came to be, it’s helpful to know this subspecies’ (known) history. This now extinct cat is a subspecies of puma. The eastern puma (cougar) was originally listed as an endangered species on June 4, 1973. Historical literature indicates puma populations were mostly in Eastern North America (except for Florida and perhaps the Smoky Mountains) by the 1870s, and in the Midwest by 1900. Puma records from New Brunswick in 1932 and Maine in 1938 suggest that a population may have persisted in northernmost New England and eastern Canada. By 1900 they had all but vanished due to systematic hunting and trapping. The last one on record was killed by a hunter in Maine in 1938.
Although habitat conditions now appear to be suitable for puma presence in various portions of the historical range described for the eastern puma, the many decades of both habitat and prey losses belie the sustained survival and reproduction of this subspecies over that time.
Their disappearance was attributed primarily to persecution stemming from fear of large predators, competition with game species, and occasional depredation of livestock. Other causes of eastern puma losses during the late 1800s included declining habitat. The most recent confirmed eastern puma sightings date from the mid-1800s to around 1930. Confirmed reports of pumas in Eastern North America (outside Florida) since then have been shown to be either western puma dispersers, as in Missouri, or released or escaped animals, as in Newfoundland.
The agency opened an extensive review in 2011 into the status of the eastern cougar, a genetic cousin of the mountain lions that still inhabit much of the Western United States and of a small, imperiled population of Florida panthers found only in the Everglades. In 2015, federal wildlife biologists concluded that pumas elsewhere in the Eastern United States were beyond recovery. States now have juridiction to determine the best way to reintroduce the other subspecies of cougars into society.
The puma was documented historically in a variety of eastern habitats from the Everglades in the Southeast to temperate forests in the Northeast. Aside from presence reports, few historical records exist regarding the natural history of the eastern puma subspecies. Thankfully, in North America, breeding populations of the Puma species still occupy approximately one-third of their historical range but are now absent from eastern regions outside of Florida.
Below are quotes from the Fish and Wildlife Service explaining their ruling.
We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), determine the eastern puma (=cougar) (Puma (=Felis) concolor couguar) to be extinct, based on the best available scientific and commercial information. This information shows no evidence of the existence of either an extant reproducing population or any individuals of the eastern puma subspecies; it also is highly unlikely that an eastern puma population could remain undetected since the last confirmed sighting in 1938. Therefore, under the authority of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (Act), as amended, we remove this subspecies from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.
Our decision to remove the eastern puma from the List due to extinction is based on information and analysis showing that the eastern puma likely has been extinct for many decades, long before its listing under the Act. Eastern puma sightings have not been confirmed since the 1930s, and genetic and forensic testing has confirmed that recent validated puma sightings in the East, outside Florida, were animals released or escaped from captivity, or wild pumas dispersing eastward from western North America.
Monitoring Covert Cougars
Like other cryptic, covert carnivores with large territories, puma populations are notoriously difficult to study. These large Felids are typically solitary, elusive, and nocturnal, making spotting them very challenging. But it’s a necessity. Being able to gather reliable data on large Felid populations is crucial for effective conservation and management of this species. Tagging and following cougars with GPS technology is the standard approach, but these methods are expensive and can compromise the animal’s welfare. So scientists are also using indirect signs for monitoring this covert creature.
Indirect signs are footprints, scat, nests. Often these can be the most effective and least expensive way to detect many animals. Animal footprints are much more frequently encountered in the field than the animals themselves, and have served as the basis for population indices and estimators. Footprint surveys are also non-invasive; the animal need not be seen, captured, or handled.
Researchers are using at least three non-invasive methods to study puma populations:
camera traps (used to identify individual animals by analysis of spots and stripes
genetic analysis of hair and scat (puma poop!)
But they have learned that camera traps may underestimate accurate numbers because pumas lack distinguishing marks. The genetic analysis is accurate, but apparently finding puma poop isn’t that easy. But, thanks to scat detection dogs, biologists are now locating more scat!
Another non-invasive method being used to track these covert cougars is identifying puma prints! This can be done through tracking three signs a puma has left behind after being in an area: a Trail, Footprint, or Track
Trail = an unbroken series of footprints made by one animal
Footprint = a single impression made by a foot
Track = commonly used to describe both an individual footprint and a trail
Below is a perfect photo of a puma footprint and a puma footprint showing the placement of 25 landmark points (red circles) and 15 points derived from them and generated by the FIT script (yellow circles). These provide 40 points to enable the scientists to measure each puma’s footprint precisely.
Photos from S.Alibhai, Z.Jewell, J.Evans
A puma footprint showing the placement of 25 landmark points (red circles) and 15 points derived from them and generated by the FIT script (yellow circles). The landmark points and derived points are numbered in one sequence, providing 40 total points from which measurements (variables) of the footprint are made.
Recent Science Reveals Secrets
A relatively recent study that was part of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project (TCP), which had already shed invaluable light on other puzzling puma behaviors, enabled conservationists to learn more about this secretive species – everything from their ecological effects to their secret social lives. The study published on Nov 14, 2017 showed the results of research conducted on cougars in Yellowstone. Their goal was to determine whether a subordinate carnivore (cougar) chose bedding areas with similar characteristics in an ecosystem that supports a multi-species guild of competing predators. Basically, they wanted to learn about bed site selection among Pumas!
The video below shows curious cougars (a mother and her kittens) investigating a camera trap in the Teton mountains. In this region, Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project has discovered a great deal about the behavior and ecology of this misunderstood and charismatic cat.
I should note: In the world of Ecology, a guild is a group of species that have similar requirements and play a similar role within a community. They exploit the same kinds of resources in comparable ways. Members of a guild within a given ecosystem could be competing for resources (space, shade, or light), while also cooperating in resisting wind stresses, attracting pollinators, or detecting predators. One example of this kind of guild is the Savannah-dwelling antelope and zebra.
The name “guild” emphasizes the fact that these groups are like associations of craftsmen who employ similar techniques in plying their trade. They often are composed of groups of closely related species that all arose from a common ancestor, and they exploit resources in similar ways as a result of their shared ancestry. Several species within a single genus may constitute a guild within a community.
Other examples of guilds in nature are different insect species that collect nectar in similar ways, various bird species that employ corresponding insect-foraging techniques, or diverse plant species that have evolved comparable floral shapes with which they attract the same group of pollinators.
Guilds in Nature:
Browsers and terrestrial folivores
Forest canopy folivores
Forest floor scavengers
Forbs ( or “phorb” – an herbaceous flowering plant that is not a graminoid)
Graminoids (grasses, rushes and sedges)
Saprophytes (plant, fungus, or microorganism that lives on decaying organic matter)
Piscivores (carnivorous animal that eats primarily fish)
Because members of a guild engage in similar activities, they are often competitors for the resources they share, especially when those resources are scarce. So, when it comes to safe bedding sites, and sharing resources in a guild, researches wanted to know more about cougars! Between 2012-2016 the researchers investigated nearly 600 cougar bed sites in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. They carefully examined both the landscape and the microsite. These TCP researchers used GPS collars to identify the puma bedding sites, then carefully studied each one.
If we are going to learn why and what they are studying exactly, we need to cover the terms. A “microsite” is a term used in ecology to describe a pocket within an environment with unique features or conditions. Ecologists and scientists classifying different microsites based on temperature, humidity, sunlight, nutrient availability, soil characteristics, substrate, vegetation cover, etc. A microsite is basically a sub environment within an environment.
It’s important to also note that many microsites exist in an environment. This leads to organisms (plants, insects, animals) basing their selection of habit on the features of the microsite itself. Being able to choose the best microsite will positively influence the species’ survival, growth and reproduction. Basically, a good choice of a microsite has a direct relationship to the future generation of that particular species.
Their research discovered that among prey species, bed site selection provides:
mitigates predation risk
may directly influence survival
They discovered that pumas gravitate to hidden bed sites where it would be hard for a competitor to see them. Warmth is also an important factor in bed-site selection, especially during winter. Their studies also shed light on the fact that these felines face more danger in their natural habitats than most of us realize.
1. Landscape Choices
Research concerning the landscape, discovered that in the winter, cougars selected bed sites that were in alignment with the hypotheses of both thermoregulatory AND predator avoidance.
In the winter, cougar “beds” / communal sleeping areas were located:
on steeper slopes, but at lower elevations
closer to the forest edge
on southern, eastern, and western-facing slopes
Research concerning the landscape in the summer, showed that bedding areas were a bit different. They found that cougars chose predator avoidance over thermoregulation.
Summer Bedding was found to be:
closer to forest edges
away from sagebrush and meadow habitat classes
on steeper slopes.
2. Microsite Choices
At the micrositescale, cougar bed characteristic in BOTH the winter and summer supported BOTH of their hypotheses of predator avoidance and thermoregulatory.
Cougars chose bed sites that included:
high canopy cover
high vegetative concealment
in a rugged habitat class (characterized by cliff bands and talus fields)
Note: Talus is steep, loose piles of rock, formed by the constant process of erosion, and ubiquitous to the mountains. Talus deposits typically have a concave upwards form. To mountain climbers, Talus areas are not technical challenging areas to hike, but climbing Talus can be exhausting—and dangerous as well, due to the possibility of landslides consider this an area. Cliff bands consist of steep, narrow passages.
Hikers trekking through a talus field on the Fern Lake Trail in the Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
A kid climbing a cliff band
Puuurfectly Suited for the Terrain
Looking at the two terrains pictured above, most people wonder how and why a mountain lion would choose to navigate those kinds of steep terrains, but these wild cats are designed for this habitat. Pumas have incredible paws! Their feet have a unique bone structure that enables them to grip rocks, logs, and slippery substrates. They are even better at this kind of “hiking” than bears or wolves!
….So a precarious bed site can offer an escape advantage if a competitor tries to sneak up mid-nap. You’ll probably never see a puma sleep in an open field, as they typically bed down where trees or other landscape features provide a quick escape. –-TCP member Anna Kusler
Researchers found that a subordinate predator (pumas) selected bed sites that allowed for both thermoregulatory and anti-predator functions. Brilliant, eh?? These choices are very similar to what we see occurring in many prey species! Remember: Cats of all shapes, sizes, and species can be both predator and prey.
It’s also important to recognize that across their range, pumas overlap with six apex predators, including the gray wolf, grizzly bear, American black bear, jaguar, coyote, and maned wolf. How’s that for competition for resources and the possibility of become prey?!
“Even though most of us probably think of pumas as top predators with little to fear, that’s not always the case. In North America, much larger grizzly and black bears steal their hard-earned kills. Wolves, as pack animals, steal their kills AND kill them and their kittens.” -TCP A.Kusler
The biologists now believe that studying bed site characteristics of subordinate predators could provide a new way to measure the use of refugia (an area where a population of organisms can survive through a period of unfavorable conditions). This would ultimately provide new insights into the habitat requirements and energetics of subordinate carnivores. Their research highlights some nuances of habitat loss that are easy to overlook. When trying to protect large predators like pumas, many people — including researchers — focus on the availability of prey. But this is only part of the puma picture.
“Because the best hunting habitats are not necessarily the safest places to sleep, a puma must find a home range that can provide both types of environment.”
Below is one of the videos they shared with the public, and used in their studies that shed light on where and why pumas chose to bed with other pumas:
We often found puma beds tucked underneath the low-lying boughs of a tree, or against the rugged face of an inaccessible cliff. They seem to prefer steep, rugged terrain, like cliff bands and boulder fields. – A. Kusler
Cats can snooze like no other. A pussycat can pass out while purring, and some even doze off when bird watching out a window! Cats never seem to venture far from a nap. The house cat’s pendulum swings between sleeping and stalking so well, we’ve named a version of napping after them! A cat could be fully aroused one moment, engaging in passionate play or serious stalking, then fall effortlessly back into a catnap. These cat nappers know what they are doing. Feline veterinarians agree that if a cat is awake most of 24 hour period of the day, there could be something wrong. Like their wild ancestors, house cats are programmed for proper sleep; it’s in their DNA. This instinctual need lets the cat that know that when he/she is not chasing, hunting, eating, or grooming, h/she should be sleeping — or at least searching for a place to sleep.
The family of Felidae is made up of solitary predators. Lions are the exception; they cooperatively hunt. But new research has shown that female cougars may benefit from tolerating males during feeding, through the maintenance of social niches that support breeding opportunities. – Who says females don’t have ulterior motives when it comes to survival of their species? 😉 And when it comes to sleeping, not only could all cats in the Felida family compete in sleeping as an Olympic trial, but where they snooze, and with whom they choose to catnap, is quite particular for these felines.
Cat guardians have seen the amusing and strange ways cats sleep. We have noticed how often they sleep, and where they sleep. But why they are choosing these places, spaces, and bedfellows is linked to their ancestors. So is the fact that house cats are crepuscular: They are biologically programmed to be most active/ awake in the twilight hours of dusk and dawn.
Pumas may not have the option of passing out on an enclosed patio, but they do have comparable choices about where they sleep in their native, wild habitats. Pumas, like our house cats, need to find safe sleeping spots. These places must be located where it’s unlikely other predators / potential threats can harm them or disturb them.
“So, like your housecat loves to sleep in the sunny warmth of a windowsill, pumas like to maximize their exposure to the sun’s rays That meant many bed sites were on south-facing slopes, where the warmth from the sun is strongest.” – Anna Kusler
Considering Cats and Cougars
As we wrap this cougar chat up, I’d like for you to consider something about your cat at home. The next time you spot your house cat snoozing in a sack, inside an empty box, on a shelf, or any other safe cozy place, consider how this behavior is inextricably linked to their wild ancestors. Your feline family member has the same innate desire and need to remain silent and hidden, just like the puma napping under the boughs of a tree or the crags of a cliff, perched high above the world. Once we know this, and recognize the importance of this, we can properly provide our house cats with the safe spaces, and cozy places they need … just like their wild feline ancestors.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”― Anaïs Nin
“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” ― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
I am so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.
And in a world where there is food enrichment for felines 😉
I hope that wherever you are in the world, you are enjoying October. And I hope you are faring well, despite hurricanes, fires, and crazy politicians. OH MY. On a much more uplifting note, I wanted to share something fun with you while I had a couple minutes.
It involves cats and pumpkins.
I am a HUGE fan of October. I mean, like a total dork about October and Halloween. I was married on Halloween. All of our cats are the colors of Halloween, and our dog’s name is Hocus Pocus. We absolutely Adore Fall and Halloween. One of the best parts about Halloween is the plethora of beautiful gourds and pumpkins. I also adore felines of all species. So what’s better than a cat or a pumpkin?
….. Cats AND pumpkins together!!!
Now that October has arrived, I took advantage of the readily available gourds that were ready to be adored … and gored.
Our cats enjoyed them as well! (Be sure your sound is ON.)
On a related note, I wanted to let you know that tomorrow I will be doing an online webinar, “Foraging Felines: Providing House Cats with Necessary Mental and Physical Stimulation Through Fun with Their Food.” I will discuss some common myths about companion cats and how dietary enrichment can be one of the most powerful tools you use with your feline family members every day! I will be discussing the importance, science, and methods behind novel enrichment that you saw in that video.
Here are some common House Cat MYTHS we will be discussing tomorrow in our webinar:
Cats are nocturnal.
Cats are aloof.
Cats are lazy.
Cats hunt in groups.
Cats are unsocial.
Cats are at the top of the “food chain”.
Cats are fully domesticated.
Cats are herbivores or omnivores.
Cats are a lot like dogs.
Senior cats won’t play with food puzzles or hunt for food.
I will also be discussing Cat’s “Super Senses!” These acute senses are unique to them as a species. Many of these super senses are not unlike their exotic ancestors; African wildcats, panthers, lions, tigers, jaguars, and cougars. Unlike their ancestors, companion cats possess extraordinary sensitivity as both a predator and prey. These feline senses and abilities are evolutionary adaptations that are unique to felines. All of these senses come into play when it comes to providing species-appropriate dietary/foraging enrichment.
House cats retain many of the instincts, traits, behavior, and needs of their wild kin and feline ancestors. Your cat may hang on the couch at home with you, but her mind and body are programmed to hunt, capture, kill and consume just as wild as the African lion on the savannah of sub-Saharan Africa, the Sumatran Tiger in the wetlands of Borneo and Sumatra, and the jaguar in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. These sensory adaptations are a huge piece of enrichment puzzle. These unique feline traits are at the heart of why we need to be using foraging enrichment for our companion felines.
Encouraging Cats to Forage
In the dog and cat community there are two very common myths currently circulating about senior and geriatric cats: They don’t need daily exercise and they won’t play with puzzle feeders! Both of these beliefs are untrue. Tomorrow our geriatric cats will show you why cats of all ages CAN and should be foraging for their food!
Food Foraging as a TOOL.
I will also talk about who, what, when, where, and why Foraging and Puzzle Feeders can be used a behavior modification tool for multiple species in the home.! A lack of mental and physical stimulation is linked to a myriad of medical and behavioral issues in cats. But this can be reversed! When properly utilized, foraging enrichment can enhance the lives of both cats and their guardians. Not only can puzzle feeders be a tool to help your tiny tiger to thrive, but puzzles can help with everything from obesity to fear. Here are some of the ways that Foraging has helped our felines:
Transitioning a feral cat indoors
Scarfing and barfing
Food competition /bullying others for their food
Wildcats and More
We will also look at house cats’ ancestors and how they relate to your modern day couch cat. We will discuss the 5 Categories of enrichment and how puzzle feeders and foraging play into those. We will discuss the Principles of Food Enrichment Planning and Individualized Enrichment Programs and why they are both crucial. There will also be a special section on foraging enrichment for senior cats. yay!
I hope you can join me for the webinar tomorrow. It’s going to be FUN and informative! But if you can’t make it, don’t worry; once you sign up you will receive a recording of the webinar after it’s over. You will also receive links to 18 videos I have created as supplements for the webinar, along with pdfs, referenced papers, and links to where you can purchase some of the puzzles I mention. These will all come to you from the Pet Professional Guild, who is hosting this event. Details here: Foraging Felines: Providing House Cats with Necessary Mental and Physical Stimulation Through Fun with Their Food.
Happy Foraging with your felines!
October Blessings to you and yours!
October gave a party;
The leaves by hundreds came –
The Chestnuts, Oaks, and Maples,
And leaves of every name.
The Sunshine spread a carpet,
And everything was grand,
Miss Weather led the dancing,
Professor Wind the band.”
― George Cooper
“Lacking a shared language, emotions are perhaps our most effective means of cross-species communication. We can share our emotions, we can understand the language of feelings, and that’s why we form deep and enduring social bonds with many other beings. Emotions are the glue that binds.” ― Bekoff
Ants teach. Earthworms make decisions. Rats are ticklish. Chimps grieve. Horses understand and react to human facial expression. Some dogs have a thousand-word vocabulary. Birds practice songs in their sleep. Mice and rats show empathy. Crows use tools. Jays plan ahead. Moths remember being caterpillars. Cats are worlds wiser than your iPad.
What else will we learn about animals today?
In mylast postI discussed how our personal and collective fears affect progress, success, and peace with our pets and within ourselves. This follow up post is intended to help you to become aware of the range of emotions that animals can experience. When we begin to see our pets as conscious beings who can experience deep and profound emotions we are better equipped with the knowledge and empathy to help them, when life challenges arise. My hope is that you learn something here so you and your animal companions can live a more fulfilling and peaceful life together, no matter what comes your way.
Most people believe that animals have some emotions. But there is a lot more happening within animals than most realize. Did you know that some animals, when faced with stressors, often respond in body and mind the way humans do? It’s really amazing.
Let’s take a look at what emotions are.
From the scientific perspective, emotions are the internal changes in the body (hormones, adrenal glands, etc.) that cause changes in expression (the animal’s external behavior), and the thoughts and feelings that accompany them. From the layman’s perspective, they are feelings one experiences in the mind that affect one’s mood and body.
Emotions have evolved as animal adaptations in many species. Emotions serve as a “social glue” to bond animals together. Emotions also regulate a wide range of social encounters among both friends and competitors. Emotions allow animals to protect themselves by using numerous behavior patterns in a wide variety of settings.
To assume that animals are incapable of experiencing the same kinds of fears and stresses that we as humans experience is a common pitfall and misconception of pet parents. Animals are very capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions! Like us, many companion animals can and do experience a range of basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, grief, and surprise.
“Common sense and intuition feed into and support science sense, and the obvious conclusion is that at least mammals experience rich and deep emotional lives, feeling passions ranging from pure and contagious joy shared so widely among others during play that it is almost epidemic, to deep grief and pain. There also are recent data that show that birds and fish also are sentient and experience pain and suffering.”
We are hearing more often these days that animals are “sentient beings”, but what is sentience? What does this mean?
“Sentient animals may be aware of a range of sensations and emotions, of feeling pain and suffering, and of experiencing a state of well being. Sentient animals may be aware of their surroundings and of what happens to them.”
Sentience is the ability to feel or perceive the world around you and as a result have subjective experiences (i.e. good, bad or neutral experiences). In its most basic sense, sentience is the ability to have sensations and as a result have experiences which then may be used to guide future actions and reactions.
Similar Brain Structures
Thanks to research with imaging studies we now know that some animals have many of the same brain structures, hormones, and neurotransmitters that humans do. Just like humans, animals have temporal, occipital, frontal and parietal lobes of their cerebral cortex. Each region is connected in the same way. We’ve also learned that emotions are centered in the limbic system, (known as the mammalian brain). We also know that emotions such as fear, frustration, and anger drive a lot of unwanted behaviors in animals (just like in people!)
Neuroscientific research has even shown, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, that elephants have a huge hippocampus. This is a brain structure in the limbic system that’s important in processing emotions. We now know that elephants suffer from psychological flashbacks and likely experience the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Animals’ Advanced Abilities
Most people believe that a human’s ability to communicate is far more complex and evolved than that of other species, but cetaceans have us beat. Cetaceans have several sound producing organs. They are capable of conveying and receiving 20 times the amount of information as we can with our ability to process sounds! This surpasses the amount of information we can perceive based on vision (a human’s primary sense).
Research with cetaceans has even discovered that the frontal and temporal lobes (which are connected by their function in speech production and language processing) are capable of astounding abilities. Communication is so spectacular in cetaceans that scientists believe there is a strong possibility that this species is able to project an “auditory image.” via sonar messages they receive. The researches at MSU claim, “A dolphin wishing to convey the image of a fish to another dolphin can literally send the image of a fish to the other animal. The equivalent of this in humans would be the ability to create instantaneous holographic pictures to convey images to other people.”
Yeah. So that’s happening in the ocean and in captivity. Just let that sink in for a moment.
Pets, People, and the Mind’s Landscape
Could our pet’s mental map be similar to ours? According to researchers at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, the physical structure of our brain and that of felines are very similar. Cats have the same lobes as we do in the cerebral cortex (the “seat” of intelligence). And our brains function the same way, by conveying data via identical neurotransmitters.
In the region of the brain which controls emotion, they are similar as well. Cats have a temporal, occipital, frontal and parietal lobe in their brains, just as we do. Additionally, cat brains also contain gray and white matter and the connections within their brains seem to mirror those of humans.
We also know that cats’ brains release neurotransmitters in a similar pattern to that of humans when confronted with information from their five senses. Cats also have a short-term and long-term memory, and are able to easily recall information from up to 16 hours in the past. Researchers are even studying cats’ Brain structures and neurotransmitters that regulate aggression to learn more about the implications for human aggression.
Recently through MRI research doctors have discovered that dogs and humans both house impulse control in the same area of the brain. Both human and dog brains by the prefrontal lobes, but in dogs this area is much smaller relative to brain size. There is an actual link between the level of self-control a dog has and the behavior they display. Dogs who have more brain activity in their frontal lobes, tend to have more self-control and are better able to control their behaviors, reactions, and responses to stimuli in their environment.
The Workings of the Inner Clockwork
All mammals (including humans) share neuroanatomical structures: The amygdala and hippocampus and neurochemical pathways in the limbic system that are important for feelings. Let’s look at two areas of the brain to better understand the commonalities of the inner clockwork:
The Amygdala: The “Emotion Processing Center”: There are two almond-shaped areas in the human brain that control emotional responses. The most common function of the amygdalae involves synthesizing fear responses from the environment. Animals also have amygdalae that initiate emotional responses such as fear.
The Hippocampus: Where Memories Trigger Emotions: The hippocampus is the area in the brain where long-term memories are stored. The hippocampus feeds directly to the amygdala. Scientists believe that this is why a flood of strong emotions often follows after we recall a vivid memory.
Our companion animals also have a hippocampus. If your pet had a fearful experience before, and the sight of something reminds her of that situation, the information from her sensory cortex triggers the memory in her hippocampus, which communicates with her amygdala, which then floods her with fear.
They have found that with dogs who are experiencing the emotion of anger, the amygdala and hippocampus play key roles. When these systems become overactive, they cause the amygdala pathway to bypass the cortex entirely. This results in an animal who will literally react without thinking. Ahem, Hocus Pocus and King Albert can both attest to this. And I know of a cockatoo who lives in this state during the peak hormonal months!
But don’t we all have the ability to react this way at some point in our lives? I find it fascinating that our animal companions have this hard-wiring as well.
Emotions and the Autonomic Nervous System At Work
When an animal looks at the world, he or she is confronted with an overwhelming amount of sensory information—sights, sounds, smells, and so on. After being processed in the brain’s sensory areas, the information is relayed to the amygdala, which acts as a portal to the emotion-regulating limbic system. Using input from the individual’s stored knowledge, the amygdala determines how they should respond emotionally—for example, with fear (at the sight of a predator or stranger), in affection or love (at the sight of their beloved person walking in the door) or indifference (when facing something trivial).
Messages cascade from the amygdala to the rest of the limbic system and eventually reach the autonomic nervous system, which prepares the body for action. If the animal is confronting a threat, her heart rate will rise. Her body might sweat in some areas to dissipate the heat from muscular exertion. The autonomic arousal in turn, feeds back into the brain, amplifying the emotional response. Over time, the amygdala creates a salience landscape, a map that details the emotional significance of everything in the individual’s environment.
This internal mind map is a reminder of how to stay safe and alive.
When a threat is perceived, the body’s brilliant sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear. The body then releases hormones that are responsible for either Fight or Flight. The hormones are adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. These hormones serve a very important purpose: They increase chances of survival.
“Fight or flight is a body’s primal response to anything one perceives a threat, hazard or danger; it is an immediate release of hormones to pump up our body to fight or run from a threat, whether that threat is perceived or real.”
Fear Digs In Deep.
There are some fascinating facts when it comes to the subject of fear. We now know that negative experiences effect the brain more deeply than positive experiences. Fear sinks in deep. And it holds on tight. Once a learner (us or an animal) learns that something is scary, should be avoided, or becomes a trigger, the negative effects can be long lasting and hard-wired in the brain.
Remember when that creep who wore a clown costume to your friend’s birthday party when you were a kid? Or what about that roach that crawled on you once while you were sleeping as a child? How do you feel about roaches and clowns today? It just takes one negative experience and that fear sticks to our minds like super glue.
Animals are not unlike us when it comes to how fear can set in and grab a tight hold in their minds.
Fear from Watching
Did you know that both people and pets can learn to be fearful of something, someone, or somewhere just by watching another animal or person? The amygdala plays a critical part in the physical expression of a fear response in humans as well as animals. Scientists have shown that the amygdala responds when a person or animal exhibits fear through observing someone else experiencing a fearful experience. This means that the amygdala is involved in learning to fear something even without directly experiencing the aversive event. Animals can merely observe something fearful and learn to be afraid of that person, place, or event!
The Scent of Fear
You know that phrase, “I can smell fear a mile away!”, or “They can smell your fear.”? Well, it turns out there is some truth to that. Researches in 2014 discovered that young animals have the ability to learn fear in the first days of life. Just by smelling the odor of their distressed mother. And this doesn’t pertain to just “natural” fears; If a mother experienced something before pregnancy that made her fear something specific, her offspring will quickly learn to fear it too. How? Through her odor when she feels fear.
When the odor of the frightened rat mother was piped in to a chamber where her offspring were located and the juvenile rats were exposed to peppermint smell, they developed a fear of the scent of peppermint. Their blood cortisol levels rose when they smelled it! I mean, come on! How incredible is that?!
“During the early days of an infant rat’s life, they are immune to learning information about environmental dangers. But if their mother is the source of threat information, we have shown they can learn from her and produce lasting memories,” says Jacek Debiec, M.D., Ph.D., the U-M psychiatrist and neuroscientist who led the research.
“Our research demonstrates that infants can learn from maternal expression of fear, very early in life,” he adds. “Before they can even make their own experiences, they basically acquire their mothers’ experiences. Most importantly, these maternally-transmitted memories are long-lived, whereas other types of infant learning, if not repeated, rapidly perish.”
Credit: Image courtesy of University of Michigan Health System
But wait. There’s more. The scientists exposed the rat pups of both groups of mothers to the peppermint smell, under many different conditions with and without their mothers present. Fear still occurred.
Using special brain imaging, studies of genetic activity in individual brain cells, and cortisol in the rat’s blood, they focused on the lateral amygdala as the key location for learning fears. Note: Later in life this area is responsible for detecting and planning a response to threats; that’s why it would also be the “hub” for learning new fears.
“But the fact that these fears could be learned in a way that lasted during a time when the baby rat’s ability to learn any fears directly was naturally suppressed, is what makes the new findings so interesting”, says the lead scientist, Debiec.
Their research even showed that the newborns could learn their mothers’ fears even when the mothers weren’t present. Merely the scent of their mother reacting to the peppermint odor she feared was enough to make them fear the same thing.
Fear In Pheromones
Fear can be passed through scent glands. Not only can pheromones be used to scent mark, attract mates, claim territory, find prey, and identify other animals, but they can be used as alarms. Our dogs and cats can smell when fear is present in these glands. I refer to these as FEAR-amones. When they smell fear, they instinctively know to Get The Heck Out of Dodge.
Our Similar Structures
In An Odyssey with Animals: A Veterinarian’s Reflections on the Animal Rights & Welfare Debate Adrian Morrison provides a great description of just how mammalian and animal-like we humans are. As Morrison explains, we share common brain structures with other mammals:
My cat, Buster, and I both flinch and yowl or curse at a sudden painful stimulus, and our legs both jerk in response to a tap on the patellar tendon of the knee. The spinal organization of the neurons responsible for these activities is the same in cats as it is in humans.
Moving forward into the lowest part of the brain, in both Buster and me the same neurons control basic bodily functions, such as regulation of breathing, heart rate, and vomiting. Farther forward reside the nerve cells that regulate the behaviors of sleep and wakefulness, which are identical in humans and other mammals, and where dysfunction results in similar problems, such as narcolepsy … and REM sleep behavior disorder. In this brain region in all mammals are found the neurons containing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which degenerate in Parkinson’s disease.
At the base of the cerebral hemispheres is the almond-shaped amygdala, where mechanisms leading to fear and anxiety in people and animals operate. Monkeys and rats have contributed much to our understanding of the amygdala. The overlying cerebral cortex is where all of us mammals analyze the sensations coming from the skin, muscles and joints via the spinal cord, or eyes and ears in the cases of vision and hearing.
Where we depart from our animal brethren is in the great development of the front part of our cerebral cortex, the frontal lobes, and the greater proportion of cerebral tissue, called association areas, which integrate the information obtained from the regions that directly receive sensory information. These latter regions are called the primary sensory and motor areas because they receive simple, pure sensations and direct the movement of the body. It is within the frontal lobes that we humans mull over the past, prepare for the future, and reflect on its implications. Animals do not have this last capability in particular, as far as we can discern. Animals prepare for the future in a limited, instinct-driven way: Think of squirrels gathering and burying nuts for the winter. …
His last three sentences get right to the point of why I am sharing with you: If we have the ability to plan, predict, and prepare, and our pets are instinctively coping, adjusting, and surviving this rollercoaster (we put them on), then we have a lot of work to do as their guardians.
If fear is sticky and hard to remove, then as animal guardians we need to know how fear sets in, how we can minimize or prevent it, and how to effectively remove it. We have serious business at hand if we want them to live in our human world with minimal stress and fear, and with a maximum sense of security and safety. If we want them to thrive, rather than merely survive, then we need to get to work.
The willingness to recognize that animals have emotions is key. Their feelings matter, their fear is real to them. Animals are sentient beings who experience the lows and highs of their live with us. We must respect this.
To continue with the status quo, because that’s what as always been done isn’t enough anymore. Now that we know more, we do more. Now that we know better, we must do better. For them. For us. For all species.
All that we once believed about animals has changed, and so should our relationships with the animals we live with, care, for and are stewards for. When it comes to what we can and cannot do for animals, it is their capacity to feel, experience complex emotions that can be a catalyst for how we change the way we view them, and how we act on their behalf.
“Emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them, and so do other animals. We must never forget that”. ― Marc Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy – and Why They Matter
My next post in this “Fear Series” will address both the causes and effects of of emotional and environmental stress on our pets, so stay tuned!
And the last post in this Fear Series will be chocked full of fun tips and techniques that you can implement to help your pets reduce their fears and live a fearless life!
Until then, I am going to plan, prepare, and be proactive about our upcoming Big Move with our animal companions!
The title of this post was a declaration made by a brilliant and highly respected behaviorist at Positive Cattitudes.
She was referring to cats who have been forced to have their digits removed.
Yes, you read that correctly. It’s 2016, yet house cats, exotic cats, and other animals are still being forced to have their claws removed. Take heed my friends: the claw is only part of the picture. The word “declawing” is actually a fancy name for “de-toeing.”
This medical procedure is still practiced by veterinarians! And it’s legal!
Declawing (or deknuckling) is thankfully, banned in many countries, including Switzerland, Israel, Australia, India, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Yet only ten cities in the United States have banned the barbaric practice. But thanks to informed animal guardians, and advances in behavioral and medical science, this barbaric and outdated procedure may come to an end in other, progressive areas of our nation.
New York could be the first state to make it illegal to declaw cats and other animals.
Last year Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal introduced a bill (A.1297) which would make New York the first state in the nation to ban declawing. The New York declawing bill would ban the procedure unless it is done to remove a tumor or for other medical reasons. The bill is now being reviewed in committee hearings.
State veterinarians have opposed the bill, insisting that decision on declawing should be left to the owners and medical professionals.
But we believe otherwise.
Cats need their claws. They have a right to keep their claws. And as animal guardians, we need to understand why.
Cats use their claws to assist in climbing and maintaining balance, to help them fully stretch, to relieve stress through kneading, and to escape danger. When a person has its animal declawed, usually in an attempt to protect furniture, they do fundamental damage to that animal both physically and in behavioral ways. There are harmless ways to manage undesirable behavior through simple training and other established methods.
Declawing, also known as onychectomy, involves the removal of all or most of the last bone of each of the toes of the front feet, and tendons, nerves and ligaments that allow for normal function of the paw are severed, resulting in intense and chronic pain and other serious medical issues. Flexor tendonectomy, in which cats’ toes are cut so that claws cannot be extended also imperils their health and safety. Abscess-
es often develop as the area comes into contact with dirt or litter, and sometimes regrowth can occur spontaneously resulting in sharp pain or infection.
After the claws are removed, the animal tends to shift its gait and where it places most of its weight, causing strain on its leg joints and spine, which can lead to early onset arthritis and prolonged back and joint pain. Declawed cats often develop behavioral problems that lead to their being surrendered to animal shelters where they are, for the most part, not adoptable.
Become An Informed Animal Guardian.
The article, The War Over DeClawing Moves to New York , will change they way you think of cats and their right to keep their much-needed claws. Some of the professional comments at the end of the article are insightful as well. In fact, there is one comment in particular that I agree whole hardheadedly about. It was written by my friend and colleague, Jacqueline Munera. I invite you to read what she recently shared about this very important discussion:
I am a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and a large percent of my cases involve declawed cats. 100% of my clients did not recognize the signs that their cat was in pain until I pointed it out to them. These are wonderful owners who love their cats very much and they had no idea how much pain their cats were suffering. Most are heartbroken that they didn’t realize their cats are in pain. Some had the cats declawed, others adopted or rescued them and they were already declawed. Additionally, many of these cats had recently been given the medical “all clear” by their vets before they saw me for the behavior issue. This means that the vet also either didn’t recognize the signs of problems related to declawing or decided that the signs were not important enough to raise red flags.
Obviously, I also work with some fantastic vets that notice the issue and treat it as best as they can. This is VERY expensive and can include further surgery to remove nail re-growth under the skin, clean out infected pus pockets, possibly cutting more tendons in order to free up frozen joints, etc. It can also involve physical therapy and laser treatments. At minimum, these cats require appropriate pain medicines and adjuncts like Adequan, usually for the rest of their life. They also often require more expensive litters or materials that are softer on their paws. Many times the environment needs to modified as well to prevent as much jumping force as possible (e.g. cat stairs, ramps, mats and padded materials).
This procedure is listed as a “procedure of last resort”, however it is well known that this is not how it is actually provided. Therefore, vets (some of them) have proven that they are incapable of self-monitoring. Admittedly, there are many psychological and false logic reasonings for this. Most vets do believe they are saving that cat’s life. Unfortunately, data from animal shelters and related facilities prove that this is not the case. They believe that if they don’t do it, someone else will and won’t do as good a job. That may certainly be true in some cases, however, that excuse just doesn’t work when you are dealing with something that is so potentially harmful. Almost all of my clients state that they would not have had the procedure done if they had the information that I provided them, which their vets did not. This is certainly a skewed population (people that care enough and have enough patience and money to pay for an expert to help solve their cat behavior challenge), however, if these people would have changed their minds, then that argues for the case that there is a population out there that would do the same if given the opportunity by their vet.
And lastly, for those who state “It should be decided by the pet owner” and “keep government out of our lives, blah blah blah”… In many cases, we don’t leave abusive activities up to the individual to decide to do and we will stay out of it. This is particularly true when the individual has a responsibility to care for another individual that is incapable of caring for themselves (e.g. senior, child, PET). Sure you can decide to lock your child in a closet and starve them, but if you get caught, that means the old government is going to step in and punish you (hopefully). Too many pet owners and veterinarians have proven incapable of making the correct choice to the benefit of the cats. Therefore, someone else has to step in and help them make the right choice by taking away the possibility of utilizing the harmful choice of mutilating a living creature’s feet.
P.S. I’m adding a thank you to all of the wonderful owners, veterinary professionals and humans of all types that agree that cats and claws belong together! Purrrs to you!
Complications Hidden In Plain Sight
As a behavior consultant who works closely with families who are concerned with frustrating animal behavioral issues in their home, I see the all too common connection between what pet owners decide to do for convenience sake, or “as a last resort”, but they fail to see the larger picture; medical issues and behavioral issues are often intertwined. A quick fix is never the solution. And a “simple” medical procedure such as declawing often later becomes a complicated mess in the home, hidden behind a myriad of behavioral issues. As Jacqueline explains, there are times when we need legal oversight to ensure that our animal family members are protected. I agree. My hope is that the bill will be passed and this will be the last time we talk about this outdated, risky, and inhumane procedure.
Some people feel it’s unnatural to remove a cat’s claws, and it’s done for the owner’s benefit and not for the cat’s benefit. There are many other arguments you can make for this — the pain they go through, the complications after declawing. But I think it really boils down to cats are born with claws and they should keep them. ~ Drew Weigner, Atlanta veterinarian and president of the Academy of Feline Medicine
Don’t Give Up on Your Cat and His/Her Claws!
Do you feel like declawing is “your last resort”? Please don’t give in to the justification for declawing, and don’t give up on your feline family member. There are many other humane options! The four cats that we have shared a home with all have their claws intact. Have we had any issues in the past with undesirable scratching in our home? Sure. It’s what cats need to do. But I didn’t chop off their toes because of it. We compromised. And I taught my cats where and what to scratch on. I took the time to learn my cats’ individual preferences, and their individual thresholds so they would never feel the need to scratch inappropriately. It’s humane. It’s fun. It works. And you can do this too! Don’t give up. Find a qualified feline behaviorist to help guide you and your feline family members. You can create a harmonious home.
New Year’s Eve will be here in just a few days. The question isn’t “when will it arrive?” The question is, will it arrive at your home with a big bang, or will it arrive with grace and ease? I can tell you honestly that New Year’s Eve will arrive at our house this year without whimpers or bangs.
But this wasn’t always so.
Festivus for Us!
In the past, my home wasn’t calm and peaceful. In fact, it was pretty crazy, especially this time of year. For many years I used to host an annual New Year’s Eve party. Friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers knew that my dojo was The Place To Go if you wanted to have a great night on New Year’s Eve. For hours on end it was a fabulously fun FESTIVUS. People were coming and going all night. There were endless fireworks and food. Music was blasting, voices were booming, and drinks were pouring. I threw one heck of a party.
Now I know better.
Consider every living being in your home.
I can say with all sincerity that as much as I loved hosting for others, I know now that it was a bit selfish of me because I wasn’t thinking of everyone. I had not considered how my housemates might have felt. These roomies were not like most. They didn’t speak my language. I didn’t speak theirs at the time. I did not consider the effects that New Year’s Eve’s shenanigans would have on them.
My roommates were the animals with whom I shared my home.
Despite what we often may think, animals are pretty complex creatures. They speak a different language than we do, they have quirks in their personalities that can make them quite unusual sometimes (like us humans) and they often display anxiety and discomfort in ways we don’t. -No Dog About It
Consider Their Individual Needs.
I can’t say that I ignored my furry, feathered, and scaly roomies’ needs when New Year’s Eve came around. 15 years ago I didn’t know their individual or species-specific needs. I was unaware of what each animal in my home truly needed to feel safe and secure, content and stress-free when the party got started!
Many years ago I was in the old school dogs-and-dominance domain. I knew just enough to get by. I had a heart for fish and herps. And I knew the basics of birds, cats, rats and rabbits.
But knowing the basics and having a heart for them wasn’t enough. -Not if they were to live long, healthy, peaceful, content, and minimally stressed lives. Using old-school, masculine management techniques create more harm than good. And a whole lotta love isn’t enough if we want our animal companions to flourish!
I am who I am today because of the mistakes I made yesterday. ―The Prolific Penman
Know Their Needs.
We all have opinions about pets. But what do we really know to be true? Science and metaphysics are constantly discovering new and fascinating insights about animals.
Let’s look a just a few facts and stats to be aware of concerning our animal companions that will help everyone in your home move into the New Year with grace and ease:
All of this matters. –Especially during the holidays.
Are the holidays stressful for you? Consider how it affects your animal companions. Consider how they feel. Consider their individual needs. I failed to do this in years past, but now that I know better, I do better.
Now we spend New Year’s Eve cuddled and calm. We don’t throw wild parties, and if we do have friends over, we set up our home environment to ensure the animals feel safe.
How will you spend your New Year’s Eve this year? Will you welcome it with calmness and without fear? My wish is that you will. May you find comfort and peace being home with the ones you love, and may you be content beingtogether.
“Whenever you are examining someone else, you are bound to learn many interesting things of which you were not previously aware.” ―Lemony Snicket
Do you have a long list of things to do, but even more reasons not to do them?
I do. We all do.
We have lists of must-do today, gotta-do this week, have-to-do this month, and so on. They’re things we know we should do, but instead we check Facebook, read the newspaper, watch T.V., garden, organize the office or garage, or do something else that is completely unrelated to The List that we are wanting to avoid. When humans do this kind of avoidant behavior we call it ‘procrastinating’, but when other species of animals do it, it’s referred to as displacement behavior.
What Is Displacement Behavior?
Rather than try and explain it myself, here are a few definitions of displacement behavior:
In biology and psychology, it’s something that a person or animal does that has no obvious connection with the situation which they are in and that is the result of being confused about what to do.
Displacement behavior usually occurs when an animal is torn between two conflicting drives, such as fear and aggression. Displacement activities often consist of comfort movements, such as grooming, scratching, drinking, or eating.
Displacement Activity defined:
1. (Psychology) behavior that occurs typically when there is a conflict between motives and that has no relevance to either motive, e.g. head scratching
2. (Zoology) zoology the substitution of a pattern of animal behavior that is different from behavior relevant to the situation, e.g. preening at an apparently inappropriate time
Simply put, it’s a normal behavior that’s displayed out of context.
Displacement behavior is usually seen when an animal has a conflict between two drives: the desire to approach an object, while at the same time being fearful of that object. Displacement behaviors are a way of coping with the present environment.
In social situations, scientists also refer to these kinds of behaviors in humans as displacement behaviors. You might recognize these commonly seen behaviors when you’re out at a bar or restaurant where couples are gathered. Men often scratch at, or touch their face. Women will fiddle with their hair, tug at their purse, or tap their shoe. I call it fiddling and flirting! Scientists have even found that these behaviors represent an important strategy for coping with stressful situations, particularly for men.
Mating and Conflict in Many Species
Humans are not the only species who display a variety of displacement behaviors in a myriad of environments to cope with stress and frustration. There are many examples of displacement activities in the animal kingdom. They are known to occur in a wide range of species from dolphins to dogs. Below is a description of the reactions of two herring gulls contending for nesting territories on a sand dune:
If both the birds are standing near the edges of their territories so that in each the urge to drive off the intruder is matched by the urge to retire into the heart of the territory, they may suddenly leave their confrontation for a few moments and pull with their beaks at grass stems.
Tinbergen found that this was really part of the pattern of nest-building; and it appeared that when the drive to defend the nesting territory was frustrated by an opposing drive, part of the pent-up “energy” splashed over, so to speak, in isolated actions which were part of the sequence normally expressing quite a different drive, that of building the nest.
Another interesting point is that some of these activities, especially those which arise in mating encounters, have become transformed into signals which convey the frame of mind of one individual to another of the same species.
Whether or not this adaptation occurs, the essential characteristics of displacement activity are frustration of one basic drive and the inconsequential performance of fragmentary activities normally part of behavior expressing another.
What the scientist is describing are displacement behaviors. These behaviors are allowing the gulls to avoid conflict. They are a form of clear communication within their species, and the behaviors work for the gulls. Our companion animals are doing this all the time with us, and others at home, but we fail to recognize it.
Fidos, Felines, and Feathered Ones
Gulls are not unlike our pets at home. If we look closely enough we will see similar behavior in our animal companions! For example, a dog may have the desire to bark, bite, or walk away from another dog, but instead she scratches herself (when she’s not actually itchy). During conflict, a cat who’s being harassed may be unsure whether to run from her attacker, or stand her ground and fight. So instead of doing either behavior, the threatened cat displays a third, unrelated behavior; grooming. Self grooming is a normal behavior that cats find calming and reassuring. But in this situation, it’s a displacement behavior!
“Some dogs will interrupt play, or other types of interactions with humans or other dogs, to take a quick ‘inventory’ of their own uro-genital body parts. This is a form of displacement behavior that appears most in stressful situations.” – Handelman, Barbara, Canine Behavior
Other common examples of displacement behavior in cats and dogs:
yawning when not sleepy
grooming out of context
using the scratching post after a stressful encounter
shaking off when not wet
Scent marking with their face
“If an animal (or bird, or fish) is stimulated to express a basic drive but the action is frustrated, the drive may find an outlet by inducing fragments of the pattern of behavior properly belonging to another drive. This is known as displacement activity.” -Thus, Tinbergen
Instead of licking our genitals or racing over to the scratching post, humans find other calming (and much more appropriate) reassuring activities to keep us busy, comfortable, and feeling secure. In fact, I am doing a displacement behavior right now: Instead of facing my Must Do List, I am writing this blog to you.
Displacement behavior is the animal equivalent of nail-biting. It’s a specific behavior that helps to relieve stress, or to deflect conflict, without having to deal with it directly.
How do you know if it’s a displacement behavior?
—> We need to look at the FULL picture.
We need to ask, “What’s happening in the environment at that moment?”
We also need to become aware of the ABCs of Behavior.
What’s In The Name?
The reason these behaviors are called “displacement” behaviors is because they happen out of context. For example, if you and your dog head into the veterinarian’s office and your allergy-free dog begins scratching herself all of a sudden, then paces in circles while in the lobby with you, and then suddenly she “shakes off” (when she is dry), your dog is displaying displacement behaviors. Then this is your dog’s way of calming her nervous system, lowering her stress, and dealing with the environment she feels is threatening.
NOTE: Observing a single action, behavior, or posture is not enough information to accurately interpret an animal’s behavior. A displacement activity might indicate eustress, distress, and/or fear … or not.
Displacement In Action!
The video below shows a number of displacement behaviors in dogs. See how many you recognize. Can you determine what’s causing the dogs to be conflicted/anxious?
The dog wants to do something, but he is suppressing the urge to do it. He displaces the suppressed behavior with something else such as a lick or a yawn. For example, you are getting ready to go out and the dog hopes to go too. He is not sure what will happen next. He wants to jump on you or run out the door, but instead he yawns. The uncertainty of the situation causes conflict for the dog and the displacement behaviors are a manifestation of that conflict. The dog may want to bite a child who takes his bone, but instead he bites furiously at his own foot. – Doggone Safe
Below is a video of an adult cat displaying Displacement Behaviors to reduce the energy and anxiety of a juvenile cat. The Displacement behaviour you will see is grooming, yawning, rolling, and averting gaze.
These behaviors can indicate that the animal is feeling conflicted. Inner conflict that’s not positively addressed can lead to more severe anxiety, fears, and prolonged stress. These can in turn affect an animal’s mental and physical well being, which can lead to medical and behavioral issues. And frankly, if you are living or working with an animal, you should be FLUENT in their language.
What should you do?
If your animal companion is doing any of these behaviors around children, dogs, cats, or other pets in the home (or elsewhere), turn the conflict into fun, or at the very least, help the animal to feel calm, relaxed, and safe. Help them walk away from what’s stressing them, or let them know they are safe by removing the perceived threat. If the situation is getting tense with another animal or child, intervene swiftly but positively. Then offer everyone something positive and productive to focus on. Remember to keep it upbeat and easy! We don’t want to add more stress to the situation.
Note that being “stressed” is not inherently a negative state. Stress, if defined and used correctly in the biological sense, refers to being pushed out of a state physiological homeostasis, either by something negative or positive. Being excited about seeing a rock concert is as stressful as being afraid of going to the dentist. Eustress refers to stress (or arousal, or excitement) that is perceived as positive. Distress refers to stress that is perceived as negative. – Patricia McConnell, PhD, a Zoologist and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, (CAAB)
Do you notice displacement behaviors in the animals at your work or home? What is the most common one that you see?I would love to hear from you. Please share below!
I’m in no hurry: the sun and the moon aren’t, either. Nobody goes faster than the legs they have. If where I want to go is far away, I’m not there in an instant. ― The Collected Poems of Alberto Caeiro
Are you a patient person? Do you take your time with things? Do you want more than you need?
I am not very patient some days. I rush into things sometimes, and my natural tendency is to get greedy when it comes to animal training. But I have learned to go slow and to be patient. I have learned to be grateful and satisfied with small successes. I would like to share one of them with you.
Way back in the day when I was at the Audubon Nature Institute, one of my mentors (and my housemate) was the head animal trainer. When I was making progress with an animal at work or at home she used to calmly tell me, “Don’t be a greedy trainer, Amy. Stop when you’re ahead.”
I always grunted when I heard that advice, but I knew she was right. In fact, she was always right when it came to animal training. She was one of those brilliant trainers that always had a solution to a problem. She could create and maintain the most complicated chains of behavior. She was famous for creating long lasting bonds with every animal (and person) she worked with. She always trained and taught without fear or intimidation. And she was the trainer who make the greatest advances with any animal she worked with. I learned so much from her.
Now decades later her advice still rings true when I am working with a client or with our animals at home. – especially cats.
If you wanna get to second base, let them set the pace.
If you have lived or worked with cats you know that they set the pace. If you have not worked with cats before, know this: When you decide to set the pace and push too fast you will fail. You will both end up becoming frustrated and stressed. You might even get injured in the process, too. And then finally, you loose the cat’s trust.
It pays to go slow.
I like to think of going slow with cats as moving from first base to second base, and then eventually onto a home run. I set up our training sessions this way. First base might be the cat letting you hold his paw. Second base might be the cat letting you lift his paw, then touch his paw with nail clippers. Third base would be touching, holding, and then applying gentle pressure with the nail clippers to the actual nail. Home run is a full nail clip.
I’ll explain why I like to move through the bases slowly.
For over a decade I watched numerous veterinarians push my cats well past the point of no return. One cat in particular, Mr. Beaux, would become so stressed at the vet’s office, he had to be netted (yes, caught in a net). Then heavily sedated. They had to do this to even look at him. I watched Beaux break free of leather muzzles, attack people, climb a metal wall (yes, you read that right) and knock heavy computers off counters in the examination room.
We don’t take that route at home, or at the vet’s office anymore. I know better now. Working with any animal should not be a wrestling match.
Now we go slow. We let the animal set the pace. We let the animal say when they are done. And we make progress together while building trust.
I’ll show you how we do this in the short video. But before you watch, I need to explain something: Beaux lost all trust in people. No one could touch his ears, mouth, or feet after all of the many manhandling encounters at various vet’s offices. You couldn’t touch him in any of these areas without him becoming very aggressive.
I had to rebuild his trust. This is how I did it.
After several short, positive sessions like that, Beaux will now let me trim all of his nails while staying relaxed. It’s something I never thought was possible! By going slowly and letting Beaux set the pace I was able to build his trust. By rewarding him for calm behavior with something he finds valuable and rewarding, he learned to enjoy the process and no longer feel threatened. By ending the session when he was done he was more willing to participate the next time.
A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.― Ernest Hemingway
Another one of our feline family members has learned that nail trim time can be a very Good Thing! You can see us in action here: Fear-Free Feline “Pawdicure”
Husbandry with any species shouldn’t be stressful.
Some common habits of grooming cats can get in the way of success:
♦️we ask too much.
♦️we don’t know when the cat is beginning to feel stressed.
♦️we proceed to quickly.
♦️we don’t allow choice.
♦️we haven’t built up trust.
♦️we forget to reinforce.
♦️we aren’t using reinforcers the cat prefers.
♦️we create over arousal.
Tips to Remember when you are first learning how to safely trim your cat’s nails at home:
GO SLOW! It’s very tempting to want to move forward quickly when things are going well, but you will make far more progress by going slow and steady.
Set aside the temptation to get “greedy” and want to do more. Be happy with one tiny step that you make together! This way you can both enjoy the process.
By letting your cat set the pace you are gaining his/her trust.
By going slow, you learn to be respectful of your cat’s body language and what their comfort level is that day. Maybe the next time you can get 2 nails clipped!
It takes time to build trust, especially if you cat has been FORCED to have his/her nails trimmed in the past and it was traumatic for them!
Why rush the process when you can go further in the long run by building trust and creating a stress free, positive experience for both you and your cat?