Monday, October 12, 2015

Animal-related word of the day: "poophoria"; a free course on canine cognition and emotion and why we need to lift our game on the plastic bag front

Feline litter tray habits can be mysterious. Why do cats run away from their own stool? Is it fear of something foreign? Or are they celebrating? The experts reckon they have the answer.

Does this sound familiar? You’re minding your own business when you hear some digging around in a litter tray somewhere not too far away. Then, silence. Then frantic scratching around in the tray. And BOOM. Your cat explodes trhough the door, racing past you at Road-Runner speed, and you know immediately that they’ve deposited something solid in the tray. 

I won’t embarrass anyone by naming names, but one feline member of my household does this daily. 

What is the explanation for this sudden, dramatic and sometimes alarming behavioural change? Science has failed to deliver an answer, probably in this case because no one has been particularly interested in investigating. But the internet abhors a vacuum.

A recent article on quotes Erin Willis, an animal physiologist, speculating that cats may be experiencing “poophoria”. This on the basis of a gastroenterologist who suggests that in humans, defecation may stimulate the vagus nerve which may lead to – among other feelings – a feeling of exhilaration. You can read it here.

It’s hardly data that would convince practitioners of evidence based medicine, but it’s a fabulous – perhaps even craptacular - portmanteau word. 

And the online discussion did get me wondering, how might you design an experiment that would yield a reliable explanation? Would you compare the post-toileting behaviour of domestic and wild cats? What variables would you want to control for (diet? Litter type? Number of cats in the household?) And who would fund the research?

In other news, online education provider Coursera is offering a free course on Dog Cognition and Emotion taught by Duke University’s Dr Brian Hare. You can find out more here.

In addition, you can test your own dog’s cognition (for a fee - $19 for a once-off test) at Dr Hare’s site hereMight be a good gift for the dog lover in your life.

Finally this comes as a sharp reminder that we need to ban plastic bags and do a bit more to get rid of marine debris. It may involve a very brief inconvenience for us, but could prevent significant animal suffering. If we stopped using plastic bags and took this simple step every time we went somewhere, we could prevent a vast number of unnecessarily, drawn-out deaths.