Covert Cougars!

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The cougar (Puma concolor)

 

Hello, gorgeous!

I am talking to both you and that cougar 😉

I hope you are enjoying life, while remembering to give yourself as much unconditional love as your furry, finned, scaled, and feathered companion give to you.  In my last post I went waaaaay up into the heart, so today I am going to switch gears and talk about three things I freaking love: Big Cats, Wildlife Ecology, and Sleep!

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The other day I was taking a break from writing our book trilogy  by tweetering around on twitter (another one of my best displacement 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.


 

Fabulous Felidae! 

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!

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Our beloved Garth at Audubon, may he rest in peace always

 

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.

concolor. Puma concolor.
Chapter 18 Classification by E.Stone

 


 

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!

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image via istock

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.

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a cougar (puma) using his tail to jump successfully between two caverns

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.

Common Names: Cougar, Puma, Panther, Mountain Lion, Catamount
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata 
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Felidae (Puma)
Species: concolor

Sub-species: 

  • 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.

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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.

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Genetic evidence indicates that our modern day house cats are descendants from at least five feline founders of a group of Wildcats from nearly 10,000 years ago.

 

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

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A nose print from Garth, the African Lion, acquired during one of his physical exams. This beloved nose print is framed in our home.  Does this resemble your cat’s nose??

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.

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Chloe, the Louisiana cougar who resides at Audubon after being declawed to become a “pet”

 

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.

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Garth getting his choppers checked by our brilliant veterinarian Dr. Bob


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.

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cougars caught on film, sharing shelter

 

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!

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Pumas (Felis concolor) are also referred to as cougars or wild mountain lions.

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!

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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!

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Mr. Beaux watching his world while safe and secure in his cat cave                            (This is the “Hide-and-sneak” designed by a veterinarian at Dezi & Roo)

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.

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A mountain lion (cougar) in the hills of Los Angeles

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.

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A cougar spotted at night via camera “traps”

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.

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Pumas, also known as mountain lions, cougars, or panthers, historically roamed every state east of the Mississippi River.

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.

Non-invasive Methods

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!)
  • footprint surveys

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.

 


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.

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Antelope and Zebra sharing a primary resource

 

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.

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Mantled Howlers are the most folivorous of the Central American monkeys, meaning they eat large quantities of leaves

Guilds in Nature:

  • Browsers and terrestrial folivores
  • Forest canopy folivores
  • Forest floor scavengers
  • Grazers
  • Forbs ( or “phorb” – an herbaceous flowering plant that is not a graminoid)
  • Graminoids (grasses, rushes and sedges)
  • Plankton
  • Saprophytes (plant, fungus, or microorganism that lives on decaying organic matter)
  • Shrubs
  • Trees
  • Vines
  • Piscivores (carnivorous animal that eats primarily fish)

 

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Most otters, like this Giant Otter (Pteronura basiliensis), are piscivores; hypercarnivores that specialize in eating 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.

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Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia) satellite tracking collar, in the Tien Shan Mountains

Microsite

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:

  • thermoregulatory benefits
  • 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.

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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 microsite scale, 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.

 


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

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This puma has claimed a precarious place that can protect her from less agile enemies (Photo: wplynn/Flickr)

 


Bed Buds

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


Catnap Connoisseurs

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.

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Much like the cougars, Mr. Beaux and Knox share shelter and safe snoozing places at our home.  Here we are in our enclosed garden together while I write this post!

 

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.

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Knox Zydeco and Mr. Beaux catching some zzzzs & rays on their catio

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

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Warmth, secrecy and escape routes are key factors for felines when they need rest. (Photo: Tony Campbell/Shutterstock)

 


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.

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“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”― Anaïs Nin

 


References & Recommended Reading:

Why Cats Like Boxes AND Need Them!

Estimating Abundances of Interacting Species Using Morphological Traits, Foraging Guilds, and Habitat

Felidae Species List by Genus

Adaptive social strategies in a solitary carnivore

About Panthera

“Microsite Selection and the Informed Planter”. http://www.for.gov.bc.ca. Retrieved 2016-12-14.

Bed site selection by a subordinate predator: an example with the cougar (Puma concolor) in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Are pumas subordinate carnivores, and does it matter?

Characterization of puma–livestock conflicts in rangelands of central Argentina

The challenge of monitoring elusive large carnivores: An accurate and cost-effective tool to identify and sex pumas (Puma concolor) from footprints

The work of carnivore biologist Jonatan Borling

International Urban Wildlife Conference, June 4 – 7, 2017 | San Diego, California

A single migrant enhances the genetic diversity of an inbred puma population

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus Cross-Species Transmission: Implications for Emergence of New Lentiviral Infections

 Removing the Eastern Puma (=Cougar) From the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife- Now Extinct

Foraging Felines!

“I take care of my flowers and my cats. And enjoy food. That’s living.”—Ursula Andress 

cat enrichment
What do these lions and this bloodsicle have in common with your cats? Find out below.

It’s Caturday! Let’s get our Cat-Care-Chat on!  (OK I am a little stoked about this post.)

I had some down time today, and had a lot of fun with our cats this morning so I was inspired to share one of the tools we have been using. This particular tool helps our feline family members to feel safe, confident, and at ease with each other, and their environment, no matter where life takes them.

Today we are talkin’ bout puzzles.


Did you play with puzzles as a child?  I didn’t. They were boring and frustrated me.  But my younger brother did.  He loved doing puzzles.  Even at the age of 7 he was playing with 1,000 piece puzzles.  I couldn’t believe that someone would want to sit still for that long, for days on end.  I would have died of sheer boredom!  But puzzles were anything but boring to my brother.  In fact, he lived for them.

So what does my brother and his fascination with puzzles have to do with our animal companions?

A lot actually.


Lackluster or Enriched Lives?

Most people have limited knowledge as to how to successfully enrich the lives of their animal companions.  This results in a lack of species-appropriate enrichment with most household pets.  The lack of mental and physical stimulation is linked to a myriad of medical and behavioral issues in animals.  But we can change that!  But making a few changes to their daily routines, we can greatly enhance the lives and longevity of our animal companions!


 

Feline Facts

You may think your cat is fine just hanging out and lounging around all day while you are away, but I beg to differ.  This is a common cat misconception.  Those unwanted behaviors you are seeing are not random.  Let’s look at some startling feline facts.  Some of these stats might surprise you, but they are very real. These facts are at the heart of why I am so passionate about feline enrichment:

  • Cats far outnumber dogs in homes (96 million cats vs. 83 million dogs).  Yet cats are the number one animal euthanized at shelters due to “behavioral issues”.
  • House-soiling (litter box avoidance) is the most frequently cited behavior problem for cats, followed by aggression toward people.
  • Cats with medical or behavioral issues were the ones most likely to be re-homed to an animal shelter, (instead of being re-homed with friends or family members.)
  • Only 1-5% of house cats have access to food toys.
  • Only 0.5% of owners hide food for their cat to find.
  • House cats are significantly lacking in physical AND mental exercise.

Fact:  Many of these behavioral and medical issues can be prevented! 

Fact:  Food Enrichment can be a tool to prevent and manage many behavioral issues in homes with cats! 


“Cats are captives in these environments, akin to zoo animals, and as with zoo animals, cats’ health and welfare may be affected by their surroundings.  Because of this, they sometimes display undesirable behaviors when deprived of appropriate outlets for their expression.” – Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats, by Meghan E. Herron, DVM, DACVBa and C. A. Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVNb


 

Puzzles as Mental Enrichment

Now that I am older and more mature, I understand why my brother played with puzzles. It was mentally stimulating for him.  It kept his mind focused and it allowed him to reduce stress.  He was able to accomplish a goal and receive a reward.  Using puzzles for enrichment for our cats are not that different from this practice.

Puzzles are one tool that can be used on a regular basis to encourage an animal’s natural behaviors and alleviate boredom, reduce stress, and increase confidence.  Boredom often leads to frustration, and other unwanted behaviors.


The Value of Enrichment

Let’s take a look at a few very important reasons why enrichment (in general) should be a tool that we use in our homes on a daily basis.  Studies have shown that when animals are given an enriched, stimulating environment (a variety of things to do, smell, and explore) they live longer, are better adjusted, more relaxed, better able to develop problem-solving skills, and they remember what they learn.

Enrichment can:

  • Curb boredom and restlessness
  •  Reduce frustration and destructive behaviors
  •  Increase an animal’s natural behaviors, and as result, increase their health and longevity
  •  Teach you new ways to engage and play with your animal companion

Animal enrichment promotes naturalistic behaviors that stimulate the mind and increases physical activity.  It reduces stress and therefore promotes overall health by increasing an animal’s perception of control over their environment and by occupying their time.

animal-enrichment_pets_diy-puzzle-toys
Exotic animals in captivity have acess to enrichemt, so why dont our cats in our homes?

Types of Enrichment 

Don’t be overwhelmed at the thought of using enrichment. You don’t have to be a wild animal expert to do this at home.  And you don’t need to have a lot of time to implement this important enrichment tool.   It really can be incorporated easily!

There are a variety of enrichment options, but today we will be covering food and foraging enrichment for our felines.  Just so you are aware, enrichment is generally grouped into the following categories:

  • Food based
  • Sensory (touch, sight, smell, taste, and sound)
  • Novel objects
  • Social
  • Positive Training
  • Foraging

Foraging for Captive Big Cats 

When I was the enrichment coordinator at Audubon, we utilized foraging enrichment as management tools for several species of big cats (exotic cat species).  Offering our jaguars, African wildcats, snow leopards, and lions various types of puzzle feeders helped to reduce common stereotypical stress behaviors often seen in captivity. This could be anything from pacing in an exhibit or hiding.  We also used puzzle feeders and hiding food to improve one’s body condition (keeping them lean), and to increase exploratory behavior (encouraging them to explore their environment to prevent boredom and increase exercise). We also used food and foraging enrichment to decrease aggression, frustration, and fear.

Big cats_exotic cats_conscious Companion_amy martin
My dear feline friends at Audubon: Garth, Ditteaux, and Yaqui

House Cats Need to Forage for Food, Too!

Our fluffy cats are not that far flung from these feline ancestors. The innate desire to explore their environment with confidence, and to hunt for their food is still very alive and well within them!  Fears, frustration, aggression, and boredom are all just as common in our homes as it is for Big Cats in captivity.  A stagnant environment is a breeding ground for medical and behavioral issues.  As cat guardians we need to be encouraging healthy hunting and foraging behaviors. We need to be providing this kind of healthy mental and physical stimulation for our felines.

That’s where enrichment puzzles come into play!


 

The Semi-domesticated House Cat

House cats aren’t that far flung from their feline ancestors and modern day wildcats. But we are treating them as if they are.  Companion dogs are considered fully domesticated. Cats are only “semi-domesticated“.  In fact, the genomes of housecats have changed very little from their wild counterparts. And some house cats still breed with their wild relatives!  Scientists now say there is very little that separates the average house cat (Felis Catus) from its wild brethren (Felis silvestris).  And there is even some debate over whether our house cats fit the definition of “domesticated”.  That’s why I often refer to our cats as wee “house panthers.” Our house cats need just as much enrichment that their wild counterparts receive every day.

“We don’t think cats are truly domesticated.”Wes Warren, PhD, associate professor of genetics at The Genome Institute at Washington University

cat enrichment

 


Satisfying a Feline’s Innate Need to Forage

The concept of working for food is natural for all hunters. You may see your house cat as a cuddly cat, but beneath sweet exterior is a hunter.  House cats are hardwired to hunt and forage for food just like their feline kin, such as lions, tigers, and jaguars.  All cats, no matter the species,  are hardwired to use their highly developed senses and physical skills to hunt, capture, and kill their prey.

But are we encouraging this in our homes?

Not really.

And if it’s being done, it’s not happening enough, or done properly.

 Although standard diets may adequately satisfy the nutrient needs of domestic cats, their usual presentation may not promote expression of normal hunting (exploratory) behaviors. Meeting nutrient needs in ways that mimic cats’ natural preferences provides additional enrichment. – Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats, by Meghan E. Herron, DVM, DACVBa and C. A. Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVNb

Make Them Work for Food!

Cats in the wild hunt for their food.  Not only is it in their nature to capture and kill, but they LOVE it.  Your feline family member should be “working” for their food, too.  Even if they are not living in the wild, they still should have access to this wild instinct!  Hunting is a natural feline behavior, and our couch potato cats need this outlet.  

Why make them work for it?!?,  you might ask.  Great question.  A study showed that when dogs solved a problem and earned a reward they wagged their tails more.  These dogs were also more likely to try to solve the problem again, rather than if they were just given a reward.  The study also found that food was a preferred reward, compared to spending time with another dog, or being petting by a familiar human.

I have yet to see any studies that parallel this with cats , but from my professional experience with exotic cats and personal experience with house cats, all of these species get very excited when they have to work for a treat or for their meal!

Cats who are living in the wild will forage and hunt on and off for hours. They will also eat 10 to 20 small meals throughout the day.  But with our house cats, when we provide commercial cat food, we have removed the ability of housecats to hunt for survival.

But that innate desire and need to hunt is STILL present within your feline friend.

Housecats need foraging opportunities!  Most of them spend as much time eating out of a food dish as they would be foraging and eating in the wild!

“This has led to an obesity epidemic in pet cats.  Many of these cats eat out of boredom. But foraging allows cats the activity and the entertainment of ‘the hunt.’” – Ilona Rodan, veterinarian and co-chair of the AAFP’s Feline Behavior Guidelines.


Foraging Felines

One food-based enrichment foraging tool that you can try at home (or at your shelter) is a “puzzle feeder.”   The old school (traditional) method of feeding animals out of a bowl does little to stimulate complex feeding behaviors.  Food based and foraging enrichment keeps animals active and interested, while encouraging natural behaviors!  These help to satisfy a cat’s natural instinct to search for their food.

I have written about this topic at length, but if you are a cat guardian who’s new to this blog, and new to the idea of food enrichment, consider trying out something simple such as the Maze Bowl.  It’s an interactive slow feed bowl for cats.  In the video below Knox shows us how much he loves using it. (And King Albert peeks in at the end to see if there is any leftover.)

Note: If your cat has a sensitivity to Whisker Stress, this might not be the best enrichment feeding tool.


 

Pick Puzzles That Are Perfect for Your Pussycat.

The Maze Bowl is what I consider the beginner puzzle level.  But it’s not for every cat.  It’s easy and fun for very food-motivated felines. Two of our four cats will use it; the other two would go hungry before they used it. – mainly because of their Whisker Stress. That’s why it’s important to know that there are many other styles of puzzle feeders out there!

Here are a few that our cats, or my client’s cats have had great success with, or I trust the people/companies who make them:Catit senses food puzzle maze - small

Note: We don’t feed dry food to our felines any longer. We rotate between premade raw, canned wet food, and various freeze-dried meats.  But for those of you who are feeding dry food, another option you can explore is this feeder. 

Interactive Puzzle Feeder for Cats
Mr. Beaux, one of our senior cats using an interactive feeder. Beaux is an example of a cat who needs plenty of space to feel safe and secure while he “hunts”.

DIY Puzzles

I don’t know what I would do without recycling for enrichment. I have depended on it for nearly 20 years in both a professional and personal setting.  If you love to recycle and if you/someone in your family is creative, there is no end to the puzzle feeders that you can make!

Puzzle feeders can be made of almost anything, as long as it’s safe for the cat. There are mobile devices, stationary, sturdy devices, and even devices that you can hang and they swing. Do It Yourself Puzzle feeders can be used to provide either wet or dry food


Puzzle Feeder Feeding Stations

I should mention that each of our four cats have their own puzzle feeder “feeding station.” In the wild cats are solitary hunters.  Cats who are now living indoors are not exempt from this feline fact.  That means at mealtime in your home, they should be solo (away from other cats).  Forcing our feline family members to gobble down in a group can be very stressful to some cats.

In our home Knox is the food-frenzied feline. He used to inhale his food, then race over to the elderly cats, shove them out of the way, then gobble down their meal like a Meal Monster!  Not only is this rude and stressful, but Knox is on a very portion controlled diet, so he is not allowed to have “second breakfasties.”  Secondly, only one of the other cats (King Albert) will disagree with this rude behavior and set Knox straight.  Mr. Beaux, the more meek and gentle senior cat, will wander off and let Mr. Eats a Lot devour his dinner.

Not cool.

And it’s really not cool for us as cat guardians to allow this behavior to occur.  That’s why I love using Maze Bowls for the food frenzied feline. And that’s also why I give the senior boys their own quiet places to eat in peace.

And speaking of dining alone, any puzzle feeders that you use with your cats should be placed accordingly and safely around your home.  We want these to be novel areas, and novel enrichment items, not new feeding stations that encourage competition for a highly valued primary resource (food).


 Preference and Choice Matters!

 It’s very important to be aware that whenever we are considering changing a high value resource (food), or how it’s offered to the animal, we must offer the new resource adjacent to the familiar resource.  So if you want to try out a new puzzle feeder, such as the Maze Bowl, offer it in close proximity to where your cat’s current feeding platform or feeding bowl is currently.  This allows the cat to display his/her preference for one feeding mechanism or the other.  We don’t want to force our felines to use “this or that”. Cats need choices.  Choice encourages confidence!  When you offer your feline family member a choice, you will quickly see which one your cat prefers, and which one he/she wants to use (or ignore).

Imposing unfamiliar, undesirable resources on a cat may create an additional stressor in the cat’s environment.  –Herron, DVM, DACVB and Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVN


Encourage your Cat!

 Be there with your feline family member as he discovers his new foraging toy or feeder.  Encourage your cat every time she makes a small success!  Don’t just leave her alone with the new toy or puzzle feeder.  You wouldn’t offer a puzzle to a child, then leave him/her alone in a room to “figure it out.”  You would guide the child, and encourage the child when they make progress!  The same is true for our feline friends.  Encourage them.  Praise them when they make small progress, and reward them even when they are just trying to figure it out!

Note:  Many cat guardians perceive their cats to be “finicky eaters,” recent evidence suggests that food refusal is a common feline response to environmental threat.  So it’s important to look at the big picture. See what could be causing your cat to refuse to even explore a new feeding option. Remember to encourage your cat by making changes gradually.

senior cat enrichment_DIY cats
Senior cats like King Albert the Grey need gentle foraging options. This glue-free paper towel roll makes a fun feeder tube at one of his mealtimes during the day. Albert needs a lot of encouragement while foraging.

Keeping Peace with Puzzles

Food puzzles have been an excellent facilitator for making friends among felines. A couple of our cats would rather hang with us, or the dog, when given the choice. -Having another cat all up in their space is less than desirable.  But puzzle feeders have bridged the gap between cats who could care less about each other.

Puzzle feeders have also been a saving grace at times when we want to keep the peace in close kitty quarters.  One example of this is when we were moving.  As I talked about before, all of us were confined to various hotels across the country for nearly a month.  Puzzle feeders (and feeding stations) helped to keep the peace and increase kitty (and canine) confidence.

Since they Kitty Boys (and Hocus Pocus) were already acclimated to various puzzle feeders and their own feeding mats (stations) prior to the move, we were able to easily encourage each of them to focus their minds and energy onto something positive and highly rewarding while we were all crammed together.  Rather than focusing on what might be a very stressful situation to them (new sights, sounds, and smells) they were so excited to forage for their food!  Rather than becoming aggressive to one another, or having a full-on-feline-freak-out-fear-fest every time we had to relocate into a new hotel every day, each animal knew that once we got settled in, play time (puzzles time) was coming their way.

Puzzle feeders saved the day. And night.

Every dang day.

Cat DIY puzzle feeder_conscious Companion_hotel with cats
Thanks to a cough medicine box, King Albert the Grey was able to eat in peace, and Knox overcame his fear of the hotel room door. It was a quick and easy DIY puzzle feeder during our move.

 


Positive Side to Food Puzzles

Not only do feline food puzzles encourage cats to engage in (part of) their natural predation sequence of stalking, capturing, and consuming their prey, but there are other benefits as well.  If your feline is a tubby tabby like ours was, food puzzle toys can encourage cats to lose weight!  And in some instances, the successful introduction of food puzzle toys has helped to resolve litter box issues. (Yes, you read that correctly; mental and physical enrichment can help with other behavioral issues in your home!).

When a cat is actively engaged in getting their food (rather than having it served to them in a boring bowl) this foraging activity encourages cats to be more active. This kind of activity increases confidence, helps to reduce stress levels, and … here’s my favorite part: cats become less demanding of their owners.

Hallelujah!

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Knox having a field day with some foraging enrichment

More to Come for Cats!

On October 10th I will be hosting a free member webinar on this topic. It is entitled, “Foraging Felines: Providing House Cats with Necessary Mental and Physical Stimulation Through Fun with Their Food.”  I would love for you to join us!
If you missed it, you can  sign up here for the replay!

For now offer your felines some food foraging fun!

cat enrichment _big Cats
Someone is enjoying a post-foraging-fun nap.

 

Way down deep, we’re all motivated by the same urges. Cats have the courage to live by them. – Jim Davis


Recommended Reading and Videos:

Supplemental Videos for PPG Webinar: ” Foraging Felines: Providing House Cats with Necessary Mental & Physical Stimulation Through Fun with Food”

Senior Cat Enrichment – Scent Work for Senior Felines!

 What’s Environmental Enrichment and Why your Cat NEEDS it.

 Environmental Enrichment for Cats

 Puzzle Feeders for Cats

Food Puzzles for Cats

 Your Cat Would Like Food Puzzle Toys

 Ask Smithsonian: Are Cats Domesticated?

 More cat resources