Monday, December 29, 2014

John Bradshaw - Cat Sense

John Bradshaw, Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, Basic Books, 2013.

[Note: The UK edition's title is Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed].

Cat Sense combines two things I love: cats (obviously), and using scientific methods to understand reality. There are many books on cat behaviour, but most seem to be based on observation and anecdotal evidence. This book applies the findings of recent scientific research, discusses both genetics and environmental or learned influences on cat behaviour, and also includes some stories about the author's own cats, which makes it a bit more personal.

As one could expect, the origins of the domestic cat are discussed near the beginning of the book. I have always been interested in how early humans started interacting with other species, leading eventually to us having farm animals and domestic pets. It is also interesting to learn more about the similarities and differences between our domestic cats and other feline species.

The various stages of a cat's life are discussed, from birth, through early learning and socialization, to typical cat behaviours such as hunting, mating, playing, and social interactions with other cats and with humans. Some of these aspects are illuminated with the results of new research. There is some rational discussion of the controversial topic of cats' hunting, which often leads to heated exchanges based on prejudice rather than evidence. It was good to see real evidence presented and explained here.

This topic of hunting is related to the issue of keeping cats as indoors-only pets. Personally I support this, and it will become more usual throughout the world as urbanization increases and more people live in flats (apartments). Also, hunting has turned from a desirable trait in a cat to something most humans dislike about their cats' behaviour. We can no longer say it is cruel not to allow cats to go outside, and therefore people should only have a cat if they have a garden. Instead, we have to find ways to help cats adapt to life indoors.

The book has an agenda, and I found it very interesting. The author's argument is as follows: At present, the only deliberate, human-controlled breeding of cats focuses on their appearance, which is what qualifies cats as belonging to pedigree breeds. Nowadays, almost all pet cats are spayed or neutered, most often before they are old enough to breed even once. Therefore, almost all the cats who are now breeding are strays or ferals. This means that the cats who are most friendly towards humans and best suited to a home life are not reproducing and raising the next generation of cats. Instead, it is the wilder strays and ferals who provide us with new kittens. There is some evidence that the behavioural traits we want to encourage have both genetic and taught aspects. If we want to have more friendly cats who are less interested in hunting and better adapted to living indoors with people and other cats, the author argues that we should consciously identify and breed domestic pets with these traits instead of spaying and neutering all young cats automatically.

After reading this book, I find myself agreeing with the argument presented. Yes, it would be better for us to breed cats for personality rather than looks. I don't consider cats to be merely decorative additions to the home, and while some may continue to admire the extremes of appearance created by the breeders, most people would prefer to live with a friendly, indoor, non-hunting cat. My own cats have always been rescued strays, and while they have adapted to indoor life, their feral origins can be difficult to overcome. Pandora, for example, never quite became the lap cat I wanted, and Eleni is still a bit fearful of strangers.

I wonder if we can achieve the author's enlightened vision, where breeders could identify the desired behavioural traits in young cats and select them for breeding, regardless of appearance. This would obviously depend on creating a popular demand for cats bred for domestic personality traits. Instead of choosing a kitten without really knowing much about its personality or its parents, people would be able to choose a lap cat, or a playful cat, or a cat who can be trained easily.

Another aspect the author mentions is the possibility of training cats. Most people assume that cats are untrainable, but with the right method, working consistently, and starting from an early age, it is possible to train cats. This could help cats adapt to the expectations of their owners and become happier in their homes.

I strongly recommend this book to everyone interested in cats, or animals in general. It is an interesting and thought-provoking read.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Let the Animals Live Conference

Last Friday I attended the first conference of Let the Animals Live, Israel's leading animal welfare organization. It was held in Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv. I estimate that there were about 150 people, fewer than I expected.

The host was actor Avi Grayinik, one of many Israeli celebrities known to support this organization. The event started with greetings from founder and spokeswoman, Eti Altman, a true animal welfare hero.

Let the Animals Live CEO, Yael Arkin, described the organization's history, activity, and achievements. The non-profit was founded by Eti Altman in 1986. It maintains a no-kill policy, and tries to save the life of every animal rescued. They have a large shelter housing about 200 dogs and 100 cats, and a clinic with space for 60 animals, as well as some local branches. There is a help line for reporting injured/trapped animals, and two rescue units operating throughout the country, including military bases. The organization operates a TNR (trap, neuter, release) program for feral cats, and of course spays and neuters all animals prior to adoption. There is an education program for children, From Violence to Compassion, in Arab villages in northern Israel. The legal department has been responsible for many court rulings on animal welfare and animal rights.

The next speaker was Adv. Yarom Halevy, who described the organization's court case against human-crocodile fights at Hamat Gader resort. In 1994-1995 the resort put on a show in which a man sat on a juvenile crocodile, bent its head back 90 degrees, turned it on its back, and punched it in the neck. The case went through three court levels, and the Supreme Court eventually ruled in Let the Animals Live's favour, and banned the fights.

Then we heard a fascinating talk from Dr. Ariel Tsovel about the mutual influence between humans and animals. He described the theory of Wolfgang Schleidt, that early humans learned some of their social habits from living and hunting in collaboration with packs of wolves. In contrast to the usual narrative whereby humans domesticated wolves, leading to the evolution of dogs, Schleidt considers early humans and wolves to have co-evolved, and mentions some behaviours common to wolves and humans that are not found in primate societies: mutual reliance among pack members, caring for injured individuals, living in dens, and herding prey animals. This interesting proposal would undermine the ideology of human superiority and show that early humans were an equal part of the animal world.

The final lecture was by Adv. Yossi Wolfson. He described the principles behind animal rights, starting with recognizing that an animal is "someone", not "something", and discussing speciesism. Since humans extend the same rights to all humans, regardless of their skills or sensitivity, surely other animals are on the same scale and deserve if not complete equality, at least compassion?

Following these lectures the participants could take part in round table discussions. I chose one on systemic action for animal welfare, led by Adv. Yonathan Spiegel. He described the type of court cases and legislation proposals the organization has initiated, and we talked about issues such as hunting and a requirement that any animal given for adoption should be neutered first. He noted the difficulty in changing people's traditional perceptions, and my conclusion was that the legal efforts need to be accompanied by widespread education and public awareness work.

I enjoyed the conference, but found it to be a bit disorganized. The lectures started late, which meant I had to leave before the end and missed the Q&A session. It was also not clear what the audience was meant to be. Many participants seemed to be staff or volunteers, but the lectures were aimed at a wider audience. I would have liked to hear more about the work of shelter volunteers and foster care providers.

On the way home I saw a two-legged dog taking a walk with a wheel contraption attached to its hind section. It seemed happy, and the sight made me grateful that there are people in the world willing to give injured animals a chance at a good life.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Pandora 11.11.2001 - 04.12.2014

We know nothing about Pandora's early life, her mother, or whether she had siblings. Even her date of birth is a guess based on her size when we first met her. She came into our lives in January 2002. Ivor had gone downstairs to collect the post, and he called me to come and see "a kitten who gives leg rubs". There she was, a fluffy black and white kitten, determined to win our affection and find a home. I picked her up, and she came home with us.
At this time, Eleni was two years old and we had been asking her if she would like a kitten. She was our first indoors-only cat, and we thought she was lonely and had become bored. We thought a new kitten would keep her company and make her playful again. It wasn't an easy introduction. At first we kept Pandora in the spare bedroom, and only gradually let them meet each other. Eleni was scared of Pandora, and often expressed this by vomiting. Pandora just wanted to play, but Eleni didn't cooperate. They never really became friends, and only tolerated each other. However, we think having another cat in her life did help Eleni develop and become more interested in playing.
Like many kittens born on the street, Pandora had fleas and worms when she came to us, and it took several months of treatment to overcome this problem. Apart from that, she was a healthy cat for most of her life, and apart from the annual check-up and vaccination, she only saw the vet for a tooth extraction, and another time when she fell and hurt her leg.
Pandora was always independent and a bit wild. She accepted our love, but on her own terms. For her first few years, she didn't like being stroked, and would turn around and try to bite. As she got older, she became more touchable. She never enjoyed being brushed, which was unfortunate for such a fluffy cat. She didn't usually sit on our laps, but often sat near us to keep us company.
In some ways, Pandora was like a dog. She greeted us at the door when we came home, rolling on her back for belly rubs. She came when we called her, not always, but more often than any other cat I've seen. In other ways she was a typical cat. She enjoyed watching birds and chirping at them, though she never got the chance to hunt. She liked her litter box to be kept clean. She was always begging for food at the table, and loved to eat small pieces of pastrami we bought just for her.

Like her namesake, Pandora was curious. She followed us from room to room, and investigated anything new in the house. When people came to visit, she sometimes hid at first, but usually came out to see who was there and what was happening. The exception to this was my parents. After the cats spent the night at my parents' place while we were moving, Pandora always associated them with a traumatic memory and hid whenever they came to visit. It made me sad that they couldn't get to know her and only saw her being scared.
Pandora hiding
True to her name, Pandora loved boxes. We always had a collection of boxes for her to sit in.

One evening, a window that wasn't usually open had been left open by mistake. When we noticed, we immediately started looking for Pandora, and she was nowhere to be found. We spent about four hours searching for her outside, until she eventually emerged from the bushes. We don't know if she jumped deliberately or fell. She never escaped again, but enjoyed spending time on the balcony, under supervision.
Pandora often kept me company while I was working. Eleni sometimes sits on my lap, but Pandora preferred to sit on the desk. I liked to say that I had both models of cat: a desktop cat and a laptop cat!
For nearly three years now, I have been watching the Foster Kitten Cam, and Pandora loved watching the cats and kittens with me, sometimes tapping the screen with her paw, sometimes looking behind the screen to see where the kittens had gone.
Pandora's illness came on suddenly, just three and a half weeks ago. I noticed that she wasn't eating, had become apathetic, and generally didn't seem her normal self. An ultrasound scan found that she had enlarged lymph nodes, and we were told this could be caused by either IBD (an autoimmune condition) or lymphoma (a type of cancer). Since the treatment for both conditions was the same, a combination of steroids and chemotherapy, we decided it didn't matter what the cause was, and we didn't want to put her through exploratory surgery to find out. The treatment didn't seem to help. She didn't regain her appetite and continued to lose weight, so she had a feeding tube inserted and we fed her through the tube for a few days. As in the myth of Pandora, the last thing to remain in the box was hope, and we hoped for an improvement, while being aware that the end might be near.
It soon became clear that nothing was helping and she was in pain. This morning we took her to the vet for the last time, and she was put to sleep. The vet said that her not responding to any of the treatments meant it was more likely to have been lymphoma, and it could have been very advanced even before any symptoms showed. We did all we could for her.
Thank you, Pandora, for coming into our lives. You taught us about love and about independence. You will be remembered and missed.