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Book Review: Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John W.S. Bradshaw

Book Review:  Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John W.S. Bradshaw Summary:
John W.S. Bradshaw, PhD, has been studying the behavior of cats and dogs and their people for over 25 years.  In this book, he seeks to present the biology behind the modern domestic cat in the hopes of helping their humans understand them better.  He also presents theories about the possible future of cats and suggestions as to how to direct that the best way possible for better human/cat relationships.

Review:
I picked this book up because I wanted to understand my adorable talkative tortie fluffball, Ayla, better.  I certainly learned a few things about cats that I found useful in relating to my own, but I also learned a lot about the genetics of cats (not sure I really wanted to learn that), the history of human treatment of them, and theories on their future evolution.

The book is divided into 11 chapters, which could be casually grouped into the following general themes:

  • the genetic and biological history of the cat or just how did we end up with a domesticated tiger anyway
  • how the domestic cat thinks and feels or yes scientists are now proving that cats actually have feelings although maybe not quite to the extent that their most loving owners believe
  • how cats relate to each other or cats hate other cats except for random kittens that are dropped into their nest or possibly other females from their own family
  • how cats relate to people or cats think you are a giant mother cat who is possibly superior (possibly)
  • how cats relate to wildlife or no cats aren’t destroying your precious birds you overly upset cat-haters (um except for possibly the wildlife on small islands but the invasive rats are actually worse and cats hunt them so there)
  • the potential future of the cat or for the love of god stop spaying and neutering the bestest most loving kitties in the world and only allowing the anti-social ferals to breed.

Obviously this is a lot of ground, so I’m only going to touch on each one briefly.  First though, just let me mention that the author is both a renowned expert in this science (the science of cats), and his book also features extensive references.  This is thus a trustworthy source, however, potential readers should be aware that the author (just as every author) has biases, and Bradshaw’s are fairly clear in the book.  The man clearly adores cats, and thus sometimes may sway a bit to the side of positive representations of cats and optimistic beliefs about the extent of their feelings and internal lives.  Now, I love cats too, so that didn’t bother me in the least, but a reader just looking at the science should note this bias.  Additionally, some of the studies he cites for his findings were quite small (under 100 participants, in one case, only 8 cats were tested).  Studies this small show definite room for further research.  Additionally, all of the cat studies he himself has conducted were in Great Britain, so cultural biases and differences in how cats and people interact should be considered when thinking about how he analyzes cat/human interaction and behavior.

The section about the history of the domestication of the cat and the genetics of the cat is, honestly, a bit of a heavy place to start for the average person just looking to get along with their cat better.  There are sentences that go far more in-depth into the genetics of a cat than I really ever cared to know.  Given that this book is marketed toward the average cat owner, it may have been better to dial down the genetic information just a bit to make it easier and also speedier to read in the lead-in into the more modernly relevant information.  The most interesting things I learned in this section were that domestication of the cat happened in multiple different times and places, meaning multiple cultures saw the potential of the cat and domesticated them (loc 267).  There is Egyptian temple art of cats sitting in baskets (loc 634), something I found to be pretty adorable.  The genetics of just how we wind up with torties, which I admit to only being interested in because my own cat is a tortie:

If a cat carries one orange and one brown version of the gene, then both appear in the coat, in random patches: in one part of the skin, the chromosome with the orange version has been switched on, and in another it is it eh brown-black pattern that “wins,” producing a tortoiseshell-tabby (or “torbie”) cat. (loc 772)

If you found that quote a bit tedious to read, just bare in mind that that is the most interesting to me of the genetics information in this section.  The cat is a “hypercarnivore” (loc 1176), meaning that unlike the dog, it has lost the ability to live on plants.  Cats, unlike dogs, must eat meat.  I also finally learned why I shouldn’t worry too much if my cat doesn’t drink very much water:

Cats do have two notable nutritional advantages over humans. First, their kidneys are very efficient, as expected for an animal whose ancestors lived on the edge of deserts, and many cats drink little water, getting all the moisture they need from the meat they eat. Second, cats do not require vitamin C. Taken together, these make cats well suited to shipboard life: they don’t compete with sailors for precious drinking water, getting all they need from the mice they catch, and they are not afflicted by scurvy. (loc 1192)

The next four sections often blurred together, since how a cat thinks and feels directly relates to how cats relate to each other, humans, and wildlife.

Cats can develop a cat form of PTSD if they are abandoned by their mothers early in life:

Kittens that are abandoned by their mothers and are then hand-raised can become excessively attention seeking toward their first owners, though some subsequently seem to “grow out of” this. Based on what we know about other mammals in similar situations, we can assume that after the mother’s departure, the kittens’ brains endure high levels of stress hormones. These consistently high levels cause permanent changes in their developing brains and stress hormone systems, such that they may overreact to unsettling events later in life. (loc 1371)

I found this particularly interesting, since I know my cat was abandoned by her first owners in their apartment when they moved away, and it took weeks for anyone to find her.  I’ve often suspected my cat has some form of kitty PTSD, and I think this scientific information would support that, although the specific type of abandonment was different.

Cats can’t focus on anything closer than a foot from their nose.  Your cat is not being stupid when it can’t spot a piece of food on the floor, she really can’t see it.  It helps to move it around or tap the floor next to it, to get the cat to sniff that area. (loc 1644)

This section also addresses why cats are harder to train than dogs:

Cats are much more difficult to train than dogs are for at least three reasons. First, their behavior shows less intrinsic variety than that of dogs, so there is less raw material with which to work….Second, and perhaps most important, cats are less naturally attentive toward people than dogs are….Third, although dogs are powerfully rewarded by simple physical contact from their owner, few cats are. (loc 2086)

It goes on to explain how to do basic training with your cat, adapted to cats’ specific needs, primarily using a clicker (a device that makes a noise).

Feral cats have shown us that cat society is a matriarchy, with the females of the family sticking together and the toms getting booted out to go roam and make more kittens, although there are certain scenarios in which toms are tolerated living in close proximity, generally in a situation where the tom is valuable for protection of the kittens if the space is at a premium. (loc 2426)

In spite of the ability of feral cats to live in matriarchies, cats are not well-suited for a bunch of unrelated and gender-mixed cats living in one small space.  Cats generally don’t like most other cats, and Bradshaw talks some about how forcing cats to live with other cats they are not related to or don’t particularly like can put undue stress on the cats.

Cats appear to be incapable of sustaining a large number of friendly relationships, even when all their neighbors are close relatives. (loc 2438)

However, the bond the cat feels with its immediate family is strong, and scientists believe they extend that bond to their owners, who they perceive of as being a sort of mother cat. (loc 3080)  This section also offers potential reasons for why a cat may purr or lick their owner, but there is no definitive scientific answer yet.  It is also noted that cat personalities are the result of a mix of nature and nurture, and affectionate owners tend to have affectionate cats but whether they pick out affectionate cats or cats become affectionate in response to the owner is uncertain.

Bradshaw then addresses the concern some groups have that domestic cats are hurting native wildlife populations, particularly birds.  It’s clear that Bradshaw believes that this is mostly a bunch of hokum created by cat-haters as a way to get rid of cats.  This is potentially true, and Bradshaw does cite some good studies about the actual impact cats have on wildlife (very small, and in some cases, helpful since they eat the invasive predator of a native species).  However, it is difficult to believe everything he cites, since his bias in favor of cats is so clear, and I am saying this as a cat-lover myself.  I would find it more useful for his evidence to be presented in a more balanced fashion, as I would then feel more confident citing it to people who are concerned about cat impact on wildlife.

Finally, Bradshaw looks at the potential future of the cat.  He is clearly quite concerned that our current method of neutering pet cats will hurt future cats.

Because neutering inevitably targets those cats that are being best cared for, it must logically hand the reproductive advantage to those cats that are least attached to people, many of which are genetically predisposed to remain unsocialized. We must consider the long-term effects of neutering carefully: for example, it might be better for the cats of the future as a whole if neutering programs were targeted more at ferals, which are both the unfriendliest cats and also those most likely to damage wildlife populations. (loc 4039)

I found this argument to be quite moving and logical.  Bradshaw suggests both that owners might let their pet cats breed once before neutering/spaying them and also that breeders could begin to work at breeding pet cats with an eye on personality rather than looks.  He also suggests focusing spay/neuter programs on feral populations.  This is definitely food for thought, and I certainly will consider letting a future pet cat have a litter of kittens.

Bradshaw ends his book with this statement:

Cats need our understanding–both as individual animals that need our help to adjust to our ever-increasing demands, and also as a species that is still in transition between the wild and the truly domestic. If we can agree to support them in both these ways, cats will be assured a future in which they are not only popular and populous, but are also more relaxed, and affectionate, than they are today. (loc 4072)

A good summary of the overall themes of the book.

Overall, this book will definitely teach cat owners and lovers some new things both about the science of cats and cat behaviors.  Sometimes the science can veer a bit too in-depth for the audience of the book, and also sometimes the author’s love of cats can make him seem a bit biased in favor of them.  However, readers who are willing to skim over the science that they are not so into will still be able to gleam lots of information from this book that will be directly helpful to them with their pet cats.  Also, this audience probably won’t mind the love of cats bias in the science. 😉

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Caline Conspiracy by M. H. Mead

February 11, 2013 Leave a comment

Woman and fluffy dog against black and green backgroundSummary:
In near future Michigan, a geneticist is murdered by his pet caline–a new pet created by gene splicing to have all the best characteristics of dogs and cats combined and guaranteed to be docile.  His widow doesn’t believe that their beloved pet could possibly have done the killing so she hires private investigator Aidra Scott to prove her innocence.  But as Aidra digs deeper into the mystery she finds far more intrigue than the possibility of a framed pet.  This intrigue could rock a nation already debating geneticism.

Review:
I was intrigued primarily by the idea of calines.  As an animal lover I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the idea of a caline.  While the calines are pulled off well, they are not the focus of the book.  This is definitely a near future scifi mystery, and it’s well-done.

The plot is a typical murder mystery with a twist.  The pet is possibly framed, and the pet was created in a lab by geneticists.  While I had my suspicions about whodunit early on, I must admit I wasn’t entirely right, plus there was an added twist at the end that I didn’t see coming.  The plot will definitely keep you reading, even if you’ve read a lot of mysteries.

That said, there was at least one dead-end in the plot that I found frustrating.  Aidra goes to visit the fringe group that protests genetic manipulation and gets tossed out on her ass, but we never really find out why the group was so hostile or much else about that angle into the whole thing really.  Between that and the twist at the end, I was left wondering if a follow-up novel is intended, although all signs indicate the authors don’t intend to write one.  If they don’t, I must say I found that the plot left me hanging a bit.

The main character is a single mother of a young teenage boy.  This is different from what we see in a lot of mystery, and I enjoyed the new perspective.  The cast was also quite diverse, which is appropriate for the setting.  The characters were fairly well-rounded for a mystery novel.  One thing that did bug me is that some Britishisms slipped into the American text.  Long-time readers know that this is an issue that really bugs this particular reviewer.  The authors (M. H. Mead is a pen-name for a pair of writers) try to explain this away by mentioning that Aidra is originally from the UK.  While that explains some of her own Britishisms, it doesn’t explain why they sneak into the narration.

Overall, this is a fun scifi mystery.  It consists of an interesting germ of an idea with a few plot twists to keep the reader guessing.  It could use a few more tweaks, but fans of the mystery genre will enjoy it.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy provided by authors in exchange for my honest review.

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The Neuroscience of Autism and Learning Disabilities (Science Librarian Boot Camp 2012 Tufts University)

Instead of inundating you with my notes from yet another professional development session, I decided to select out my favorite part to share with you all.  Out of everything I did in the Science Librarian Boot Camp, I enjoyed the Neuroscience presentations the most.  So, here they are. Enjoy!

“Genetics of Neurodevelopmental Disorders,” Dr. Anthony Moncao, Tufts University

  • Genetics studies Genes. Neurodevelopment studies Proteins and Regulatory DNA. Imagining studies the Brain.  Psychiatry studies Behavior.
  • Genes aren’t determinative.  They interact with the environment.
  • There is very strong evidence that genetic factors increase risk.
  • Susceptibility genes–genes that with environmental factors increase risk for these diseases
  • How do we find susceptibility genes?
  • Identify a chromosomal translocator and neurodevelopmental disorder.
  • Copy number variants –> Deletion or addition/duplication of material.  We all have these in some variation but in some instances they hit important areas.  They are inherited or de novo (neither parent had it).
  • What is “strict” Autism?
  • Impairment in: verbal and nonverbal communication, reciprocal social interaction, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of interest (don’t ilke change)
  • Onset before 3 years
  • male to female ratio: 4 to 1
  • Autism Spectrum includes Asperger Syndrome, PDD-NOS (removed from DSM5)
  • Autism Spectrum has a combined incidence of about 1%
  • 5% of Autism Spectrum disorders are comorbid with Fragile X, Tuberous Sclerosis, Down’s, muscular dystrophy, and other Mandelian disorders.
  • What are the genetic factors in Autism?
  • heritability is about 85 to 92%
  • rate among siblings is 3 to 9%
  • It is one of the most strongly genetic of childhood-onset psychiatric disorders.
  • No evidence yet for genes with variants in all forms of Autism.
  • Hardly any two autistic kids are gonna be the same (genetically).
  • Many of these genes are important in synapses.
  • Cadherin 8 (CDH8) is probably the culprit in these microdeletions.
  • Variable expressivity –> a deleted gene can cause multiple different outcomes (autsim, learning disorder, etc…) so evidence is strong environment is a factor
  • Future prospects include: Cohorts, sequencing, translation, use of rare CNVs diagnostically, genetic counseling, early intervention for sibs, CNVs may help us predict the outcome.
  • Projected future difficulties include: CNVs are common, so we have to be sure the one we’re calling Autism really is.  Ethical issues of testing children before they have any symptoms.
  • Autism has very complex etiology.
  • Collaboration is important to make progress.
  • Specific Language Impairment.
  • Just as frequent as dyslexia/autism.
  • It is a difficulty acquiring expressive and/or receptive language despite adequate intelligence and no physical problems (ie deafness).  Problems in producing and comprehending speech, problems reading, normal nonverbal IQs.
  • It has an almost 100% heritability.
  • Inheritance is simple but complex phenotype.
  • The damaged gene –> FOXP2
  • A transcription factor.
  • Important in how the rest of the gene is regulated.  Kind of like a master switch.
  • Not the gene for speech (found in nonverbal species but important in vocalizations.  Mice won’t squeak properly.  Songbirds can’t learn songs if it is damaged.)
  • FOXP2 inhibits CNTNAP2 from being expressed (Sitting on it and not letting it make RNA).
  • Where is FOXP2 expressed in the brain? In the basal ganglia, phallus, cerebellum (motor centers).
  • Chimps are more similar to mice than humans in this gene.
  • FOXP2 is a regulatory gene.  Its downstream targets offer entrypoints into neural pathways involved in speech and language.
  • Developmental Dyslexia.
  • It is a diagnosis of exclusion.
  • 5% of schoolchildren have it.
  • Males are 3 to 4 times more effected than females.
  • Gene variant is two times as frequent in dyslexics as in controls.
  • Variants in KIAA0319 repress the expression of the gene.
  • These variants increase risk in reading problems in the general population.
  • May inhibit migration of neurons to the right are of the cortex.
  • ectopia–small bundles of neurons in the wrong area of the cortex
  • 4 dyslexia susceptibility genes have been found so far.
  • All 4 play a role in neuronal migration and/or axonal growth.
  • DNA is not determinative.  There are many other factors involved.

“Neuroimaging of Children’s Brains,” Dr. Jean Frazier, UMass Med

  • Goal: To explore how neuroimaging techniques provide insight into potential biomarkers for childhood onset neuropsychiatric disorders.
  • Basic principles of brain development: structures start small, get big, then get small again
  • 8 to 14 is an important age range.
  • They exuberate then prune, and it is the pruning that is important.
  • The more complicated a process is the more potential it could go awry.
  • Pruning is guided by “use it or lose it.”
  • The exact timing varies by structure.
  • birth to 3–time of rapid intellectual, emotional, and physical growth of brain and brain wiring
  • by age 6–95% of brain development completed
  • 8 to 13–2nd major brain growth spurt
  • 13 to 20s–pruning to organizing, especially in frontal cortex.
  • We can measure things that require energy using: PET, SPECT, fMRI, EEG, MEG
  • What MRI can tell us: structure, metabolites, blood flow, connectivity
  • MRS–noninvasive, analytic method to measure chemicals within body parts
  • If we are going to fully appreciate what is going wrong in brains, we have to fully understand what is going right in brains.
  • Whereas gray matter gets pruned, white matter increases.
  • Less gray matter, brain becomes more efficient.
  • But what happens in atypical development?
  • More blood flow in amygdala of depressed and anxious.
  • amygdala–governs ability to modulate our affect
  • Bipolars have abnormal connectivity in brain, especially in areas dealing with affect regulation and attentional capacity.
  • Application to Autism?
  • Recommends “Localization of white matter volume increase in autism and developmental language disorder” in Annals of Neurology by Herbert et al
  • Children with autism have more white matter.
  • Tracks most severely affected in Autism are growing/changing just after birth.
  • Biomarkers are a distinct characteristic that is an indicator of a particular biological condition or process.
  • Maybe the genetic risk factors are indicators of the dysfunction not the disorder.
  • Both schizophrenia and autism symptom is social withdrawal.
  • 1 in 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls (1 in 88 children) have Autism Spectrum, according to study from 2008
  • Inhibition of GABA and excitation of Glutamate are associated with autism.
  • Tuberous make too little of a certain protein. Fragile X makes too much.
  • Glutamate levels are higher in Autism.
  • Biomarkers could be used as predictors for treatment response.