As part of my series of interviews with female researchers who work across broad range of topics in animal behaviour and cognition, in this post I will be interviewing Mikel Delgado. Mikel Delgado is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, working with Lucia Jacobs. Mikel works both on decision-making in squirrels and on cat behaviour. In addition to working on non-human animal behaviour, Mikel also works with people, applying what she learns from her research to inform how we interact with animals, being the co-owner of the cat behaviour consulting business, Feline Minds. Mikel also uses her scientific findings to inform how pet-owners can enrich their cats’ lives. Here we discuss a recent publication of Mikel’s, which discusses the use of food puzzles for cats.
How did you become interested in the behaviour of pet animals? Do you think we currently have a good understanding of the behaviour of the animals we spend so much time with?
I’ve been pretty obsessed with cats since I was a young child. But my interest in their behaviour really developed when one of my own cats passed away in 2000. Shortly after that, I started volunteering at a local shelter (the SF/SPCA) to get more “cat time.” At the time, the SPCA had a program for behaviour modification of cats who were having a hard time adjusting to the shelter environment, or had known behaviour concerns. I immediately started volunteering all of my free time with this program, which eventually led to me getting hired there as a Cat Behaviour Specialist. We did behaviour modification, assessment of shelter cats, public education about cat behaviour, and operated a phone “hotline” where people could get free advice for help with their own cats. I left that job in 2008 to return to school and start Feline Minds.
From working with cats -- and more importantly, with the people who live with them – over the past 16 or so years, I’d say that we love our cats a lot, but many people don’t understand their needs very well. People have a very difficult time disconnecting their own perceptions and experiences from how their cat experiences the world. They place very human motives on their cats’ behaviour (especially when it’s something they don’t like, like urinating outside of a litterbox), and don’t appreciate the fact that as such recently domesticated animals, cats are very much “semi-domesticated” – and that living in a confined, unenriched space can be detrimental to their well-being.
In your recent publication, you review a number of puzzles that can be given to cats that they will engage with for a food reward. Why do you think it’s important for pet cats to work for their food?
I was really excited to collaborate with veterinarians Tony Buffington and Leticia Dantas, and fellow behaviour consultant Ingrid Johnson on the review paper about the use of food puzzles for cats. We are all very passionate about increasing the types of enrichment offered to cats. We recommend using these types of puzzles not just for “rewards” but as a way to feed cats on a routine basis. The thinking is two-fold: the first is that food puzzles provide activity and mental stimulation for cats; the second is that as obligate hunters, cats would naturally work for their food. No one would hand them a bowl of mice. Allowing cats to forage for their food meets an important criterion of enrichment for captive animals, which is the promotion of natural behaviour patterns. Of course, it is not quite the same as hunting, but when combined with other forms of enrichment, such as interactive play, puzzles can really provide cats with the exercise and challenges they need to be happier!
Why is there such a range of puzzles available to cats? Which are the best?
The range of food puzzles available reflects both the different types of food we offer to cats (wet and dry) and the level of challenge cats are ready for. There are some that are more mobile (such as a ball a cat can roll around, that shoots out dry food as the puzzle moves), and some that are stationary platforms with cups and tunnels. Those are great for cats who love to use their paws.
We recommend starting most cats out with an easier food puzzle, so that the experience is rewarding, not frustrating. As cats get better at getting their food out of the puzzle, you can increase the challenge!
How should someone go about choosing and implementing a puzzle for their cat?
I recommend trying a few different types, and seeing what your cat likes – the other nice thing about food puzzles is that you can make homemade ones out of materials such as toilet paper rolls, plastic water bottles, and yogurt cups. We offer several suggestions on getting started in the manuscript (available open access here through December 31st). Ingrid and I also built a website (foodpuzzlesforcats.com) to offer more information on using food puzzles with cats, including product reviews, DIY projects, and loads of videos!
Video (by Ingrid Johnson) of one example of a food puzzle:
Do you think more animal behaviour researchers should consider the practical applications of their research?
I think it’s important to conduct research with both theory and application in mind; but if we are too focused on the application, then we may be biased about what we hope to find. My research at Berkeley has been theory-heavy, and that has really encouraged me to explore new techniques and ideas, like agent-based modelling. That said, my background in helping people with their pets makes me want to do research that “makes a difference” – and when you’re doing theory-based work sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees. But the forest is there!
What kinds of questions would you like to address in the future using cats?
There is a lot of fantastic research happening right now related to animal cognition, the effects of enrichment, and on animals’ emotional states. There are still so many unanswered questions about cats: their behaviour, their social lives, their welfare, and their cognition! Cats are a great species for behaviour-related research because they ride this fine line between pets and wild; and we have millions of them in our homes that we could be studying. The biggest challenge is perhaps figuring out the best methods for researching cats’ behaviour. Because territory is so important to cats, bringing them into a strange environment like a lab is likely to evoke fearful responses. But I think technology (webcams, GPS collars, and the like) will really increase our ability to study cat behaviour in less disruptive ways!
Dantas, L. M., Delgado, M. M., Johnson, I., & Buffington, C. T. (2016). Food puzzles for cats: feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 1098612X16643753. doi: 10.1177/1098612X16643753