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Where Your Cat Wants to Be Petted, According to Science

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Felines can be fickle, but a group of scientists from the UK’s University of Lincoln is trying to figure out exactly how to please them best. A study in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science examines exactly where cats prefer to be stroked, and where they would rather you keep your paws off. 

Do cats even like being petted at all? Science isn’t sure. “While we have come to expect cats to not only tolerate, but also enjoy being touched, there is little empirical research investigating whether this is actually the case,” the paper notes. 

To find out, one experiment analyzed the behavior of 34 cats between 6 months and 12 years old in their own homes while being stroked. Either the cat’s owner or the experimenter, a stranger, petted the cat in different regions of the body, including the area around the chin and cheeks, the area around the base of the tail, the top of the head, the back, and the chest. A subsequent trial tested 20 cats between one and 12 years old, this time with only their primary caregivers doing the petting, with stroking limited to the cat’s head, back, or tail. 

Base of the tail? Puh-lease. Image Credit: Shaunacy Ferro

All the interactions were filmed, and the researchers kept a long list of cat behaviors, with each kind of movement assigned a positive or negative score. A friendly head butt, a sniff, or a slow blink, for instance, garnered positive points, while any kind of bitting, tail swishing, or ear flicking indicated a negative reaction. At the end of the petting session, all the positive behavior scores and all the negative behavior scores were added up for each of the zones of the body to gauge the cats' overall reaction.

Cats were more likely to exhibit negative reactions to being handled by their owner compared to a stranger—an unusual behavior for a domestic animal. (Familiarity breeds cattiness, apparently.) The researchers suggest that cats can feel antagonized by their owners scolding them or petting them too long, so they may not always associate their owner with positive vibes. Or, the cats may have been annoyed that the strict experimental setup—dictating how they were handled and for how long—didn’t follow the normal pattern of how their owner usually interacts with them, causing kitty frustration. (Wouldn’t you get fed up if you expected casual playtime, but became the subject of a science experiment?) 

The cats preferred their petting to come in the form of strokes along the cheeks and chin or between the eyes and ears. They liked having the base of their tails touched least. The researchers hypothesize that cats don’t groom each other in this area, and the only time they would touch each other’s tails would be in the form of wrapping their tails around each other, which only happens between the best of cat friends. It’s likely that “the handler is not considered a close enough affiliate for interaction to occur at such a place on the body,” the researchers write. Rejected!

There it is, in plain scientific language: Your cat doesn't love you as much as you thought. Granted, one study with just over 50 cats isn't significant enough to be the final word on feline behavior. But just to be safe, best to stick to the tried-and-true chin scratches, or risk getting swatted. 

[h/t: Washington Post]

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Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds
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Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

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Animal Welfare Groups Are Building a Database of Every Cat in Washington, D.C.
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There are a lot of cats in Washington, D.C. They live in parks, backyards, side streets, and people's homes. Exactly how many there are is the question a new conservation project wants to answer. DC Cat Count, a collaboration between Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, aims to tally every cat in the city—even house pets, The New York Times reports.

Cities tend to support thriving feral cat populations, and that's a problem for animal conservationists. If a feline is born and grows up without human contact, it will never be a suitable house cat. The only options animal control officials have are to euthanize strays or trap and sterilize them, and release them back where they were found. If neither action is taken, it's the smaller animals that belong in the wild who suffer. Cats are invasive predators, and each year they kill billions of birds in the U.S. alone.

Before animal welfare experts and wildlife scientists can tackle this problem, they need to understand how big it is. Over the next three years, DC Cat Count will use various methods to track D.C.'s cats and build a feline database for the city. Sixty outdoor camera traps will capture images of passing cats, relying on infrared technology to sense them most of the time.

Citizens are being asked to help as well. An app is currently being developed that will allow users to snap photos of any cats they see, including their own pets. The team also plans to study the different ways these cats interact with their environments, like how much time pets spend indoors versus outdoors, for example. The initiative has a $1.5 million budget to spend on collecting data.

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have the tools both conservationists and animal welfare groups need to better control the local cat population.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said in a statement, “The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally."

[h/t The New York Times]

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