#25 - Dr. Miranda Workman: Cat Enrichment

[00:00:00] Miranda: So whether you’re using a clicker, whether you’re using a verbal marker, whether you just want to give them a treat, when they look at you for a shy cat, or you want to teach them a little agility course, if you’ve set up your environment, do a little kitty par core in your living room, all of those things give an opportunity for a shared experience. And I think those are some of the most enriching experiences, are shared experiences. There’s lots of opportunities out there to learn about training cats, and just be, just get in and do, don’t worry about getting it right. We’re not going out and doing show cat agility trials. Just be in it. And if you get it wrong, if you’re using positive reinforcement, who cares. But share the experience with your cat. 

[00:00:53] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:01:04] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:01:05] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started. 

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing, wherever you listen to podcasts. 

The voice you heard at the beginning of today’s episode was Miranda Workman. Dr. Miranda. K Workman is the behavioral sciences team shelter behavior apprenticeship liaison for the ASPCA. 

For over two decades, she has served animals and their humans as a certified animal behavior professional, shelter behavior professional, professor of animal behavior and anthrozoology, and a researcher. She shares her home with her husband, three dogs, three cats, a gecko, and a domestic mouse, all of whom contributed in their own way to her PhD research focused on multi-species families.

All right, I know this episode is about cat enrichment and that there’s this whole dog versus cat false dichotomy out there. Even if you don’t think of yourself, much of a cat person, there are some amazing nuggets in here that are applicable to any species. You may just find that you have a whole new appreciation for cats as a species at the end of this interview.

For those of you who are cat people, you are going to absolutely love this. In this episode, you’re going to hear Emily and Miranda talk about cat soccer, the difference between predictability and consistency, and overcoming the observer’s paradox. All right, here it is. Today’s episode Dr. Miranda Workman: Cat Enrichment.

[00:02:41] Emily: Okay. So, start off by telling us your name, your pronouns, and your pets.

[00:02:46] Miranda: All right, my name is Dr. Miranda K. Workman, and I always leave the K as the mystery in my name. So, you can always ask me later what it is. Pronouns, I am she, her, hers. So, thank you for asking that, I appreciate that. And pets, I tend to refer to them as companion animals, but, we seem to like threes in our household.

So, I have three dogs. The Dutch shepherd, she is our senior, Athena is 11. And then I have the diva of the household, which is our five, almost six-year-old Shih tzu named Amelia Pond after Doctor Who lore. Yes, I love Doctor Who by the way. So, if you ever want to like, send me a gift, Doctor Who, I’m in. Our youngest is Dart, so her full name is Dartillery of Dragon Tooth Hop, and she is a, oh, she’ll be a year old next week. So, she’s almost a year old, miniature poodle from hunting lines. And I specifically got her because I needed the dog to have fun with, my heart, two heart dogs passed away years ago, and I just haven’t found that spark again. And so, she hopefully is gonna help me find that spark. Um, so we have a lot of fun things planned for, for her and I over the next, hopefully 15 years. 

Cats, which we’re gonna talk about a lot today. So, I have three cats. Uh, we have Rory, so again, Doctor Who fan. Uh, So, his full name is Rory Winter O’Rory, long story. But he is a, maybe four, maybe, eight- or nine-year-old, a white, uh, British Short Hair that I adopted from the shelter. So, he’s got a lot of health issues, but oh my God, the sweetest, heart and soul on the planet. He is our loves everybody cat. So, talk about a little bit, I have some cool multi-species stuff to talk about. We have our six-year-old, Maisie and Maisie and I have a tumultuous relationship. She is a Oriental long hair, and she adores my husband and prefer that I move across the country. So, we, we tend to work on our relationship every day. And then we have our youngest which is Lady Gray. And she is just, has just turned two she’s our largest cat, don’t know how that happened. But she’s a little awkward, and she has a lot of social anxiety. She was actually born in our house nature- nurture stuff, but she’s, she’s super cool.

Now, the other three are not the same species. I have a domestic mouse named Thumbelina. And she will be three years old next month, which is ridiculous. They typically don’t live that long, but she was a COVID adoption. And I figured I can adopt an 11-month-old mouse in March of 2020. Cause she won’t be with us that long. I give her a lovely bucket list and she’s still here. So, we’re working on that. Um, making sure she still stays enriched too. 

I do have a leopard gecko who lives in my office because I love having an office mate all the time. I love my reptiles and in May we are expecting a small flock of chickens to our new home. So, we live on the side of a mountain and it’s amazingly beautiful here, so we decided let’s do something new, and so we’re going to add some chickens to the family in May. So, we’ll, I’ll have to start learning, maybe listening about chicken enrichment, I don’t know. but yeah, those are my pets, companion animals. Oh, and I have a husband, I should mention that too. 

[00:06:10] Emily: So, in case anybody listening is wondering why Miranda and I are friends, that info should tell you everything you need to know. You’re delightful, Miranda. I love you. All right. So, tell us your story and how you got to where you are. 

[00:06:25] Miranda: So, my, my professional story is that I, as a young child, I was one of those kids that wanted to be a vet, right? Like we all we loved animals as a kid, this is just the thing, I want to be a vet. And then life happened, I grew up, social expectations started taking over and went to college and ended up with two degrees for my bachelor’s in Spanish and Art History, focusing on architecture and Northern European decorative arts. So, hey, well-rounded right? So, I did that and then I got married, moved several states away from my home, and decided to take that opportunity to reinvent myself, go back to those passions that I loved. I held a boring job for a year or two to get to know the area, where I moved to, which is in Buffalo, New York. And then I decided no time, like now. So, I jumped back in, went to kind of like some self-education on animals and behavior, and volunteered at a local shelter. I have since gone through the entire continuum of everything from volunteer to full time management staff, and now onto something else. But but that’s where I found my passion and my love for behavior. Because I, I love problem solving, I love thinking, I love just like puzzles. And so, so behavior seems like the, the greatest puzzle of all to me. 

So, I worked at the shelter. I started my own training facility. So, we actually did dogs and cats, so we had both species. We actually did have some rats that lived there for a while. It’s a long story, but anyway, I’m a biophilic person, so then from that. facility, I continued consulting with the shelter. I went into academia, was actually recruited to begin a new program at Canisius College with a few other professors in animal behavior, ecology and conservation. Super cool program, one of the first in the nation at that time. And since it’s such a great thing, there are more, right? 

So, in academia, I did that for, for some time. I got my master’s degree in anthrozoology along the way, then was full-time professoring doing animal behavior, anthrozoology, and sociology because the human animal is incredibly important too. I wanted to, as much as I love the non-humans I, I came to the realization. I needed to figure out the human side of things a little bit. Which for my doctorate in sociology, focusing on human animal environment, I called them entanglements because I think that’s a very cool word, and it doesn’t necessarily mean something needs to be untangled either. Like it’s just cool to figure it out. 

So, did my dissertation on multi-species families. In the meantime, on the academic educational side also have, worked in shelters. I’m now at the ASPCA on the behavioral sciences team. And so I’m working there. Shelter behavior is one of my main responsibilities, is focusing on elevating that not just in the industry but supporting those that are in those roles in shelters. And also, along the way, did nonprofit stuff. Was president of the board of CCPDT for several years. I have been the chair of the feline division for IAABC for a little bit. I’ve been, I will be finishing up a term on the American Sociological Association animals and Society council, so I’ll be finishing out that this year. And just recently was invited to join the International Cat Care Feline Wellbeing expert panel. That’s my new cool digs. I’m doing that too. So, now I’m here. I’m doing all a bunch of cool things, really just because I just love animals, and I want a better world for all of us. So, ultimately trying to figure out my way to do that in this world.

[00:10:11] Emily: I love that. We have a lot of parallels, obviously I did not go the academic route, but aside from that, we have a lot of parallels in terms of our motivations and our circuitous journey to get to where we are. And basically, getting constantly pulled back in the animals because that’s just really what we love and care about a lot. 

[00:10:29] Miranda: I always say it’s a scenic route. 

[00:10:31] Emily: Yes. 

[00:10:32] Miranda: Scenic routes and humans along the way. Yeah, for sure. 

[00:10:35] Emily: Yep. Yeah. We have that in common for sure. So, first of all, I would love to hear you talk about enrichment for cats and in particular, some of the most common or urgent species-typical behaviors that need to be provided for.

[00:10:47] Miranda: Yeah. Oh, there’s so many. I love cat enrichment because there are so many simple things that we could do in our environments. Vertical space for cats. Cats live, I always tell people cats live in a very three, 4d type of world. We don’t always consider that. And I think that that is what’s missing a lot in environmental enrichment, not just the cat tree here, but where is the cat tree?

Is it in front of a window? Does it provide access so that they can walk at the five-foot level or whatever across a room? Those sorts of small things are simple wins, I think when it comes to cat enrichment. Really looking at the environment, and not necessarily changing it all. I mean, we’ve all seen the cat house, right?

Like where they’ve built all the cool tunnels and ramps like all around the, the ceiling areas. And that is amazing. And I totally geek out watching the cats use it, but in the typical household, we’re looking for simple, we’re looking for things that can be timeshared. 

Cats, especially if you have cats with some, tense relationships, it’s nice to be able to have more options. Thinking about, what, we’re not home let’s, I mean, we’ve had COVID, but we’re typically not home, and we’re returning to life where we’re outside of our homes more frequently than we have been in the last several years. So, we need to think about how that environment can be enriching when we’re not there. And so, windows, cat TV if you have, you know, wildlife, I, can’t tell you like this morning, for example. Like I said, I live on the side of a mountain. I got up this morning and I’m like, why are all three of my cats sitting on the windowsill?

One’s on a cat tree. One’s on the back of a chair. And one was like pressed against the window. And then I realize there’s a group of five deer munching away in the woods, right across from our house. And they were all in such like oblivious joy, just watching the deer. And then I joined them and that was cool too.

It was enriching for me. But those sorts of things, thinking about, feeding with cats and enrichment. The bowl is easy. I get it. But give them a food toy, get a ping pong ball, cut a hole in it, put a couple pieces of kibble in there. We’ll let them do the whole cat soccer thing. Giving them ways to continually use their mind, and their body is really kind of the goal here, right? Because cats often can sometimes, I think have the reputation of after a certain age, after the kitten hood, that they become lumps on the log and they lay around all day. But that doesn’t have to be the case. There can be so many things that can entice them during the day. You can turn radios on and off, put some lights on timers, just change up the environment in small ways, so it doesn’t become boring. Same thing. Say, wait, we right. We have they’re saying. Same time, same place. Like we don’t want the cat to think about that about their own home. That way we want the comforts and we want the consistency, but we want joy in that consistency. I talked to my students sometimes about the difference between predictability and consistency We want there to be consistency in that the environment is cool. There’s things to do. We don’t want so much predictability that that consistency is boring. 

And so, if we’re thinking about food that I brought up, if one day it’s the ping pong balls the next day, maybe it’s a Stimulo toy. Maybe the next day it’s toilet paper rolls crunched in and have holes cut in them. Maybe the next day it’s a lick mat. All of these things that we can have consistency without damaging predictability. And that, I think is for cats, super important because we don’t look at the world from their eyes a lot. We should, I think the cat world is probably fascinating. 

And then think about scent. People think about dogs, right? We talk about olfactory enrichment, but cats have amazing olfactory systems. Talk to your vet when, if you’re using food, and you want to switch some things up and, and discuss nutrition issues, discuss changing proteins, if that’s safe, I have to be careful. I have a cat with an allergy issue, but we find ways to work around it so that he has some cool new opportunities. 

So, I think starting with your environment is the easy win for, for people a lot. But beyond that, I think humans need to learn how to play with cats. And play doesn’t have to be crazy running around. Play it with a wand toy, don’t just back and forth, and back and forth, right?

That’s that problem with that predictability. Predictability is comforting, not always fun. And so, we want them to be able to run, and hunt, and chase, and grab, and be able to grab on to, and kick those back legs, and be the predator that they are. And give them the opportunity to take those instincts and use them in a safe outlet. 

I love the question that philosopher Thomas Nagel asked years and year, decades, decades ago. And he said, what is it like to be a bat? So Thomas Nagel asked that question to try to re frame how we were thinking about umwelt, or the sensory experience of an other. And in this case, another species, right? Bats, they use echolocation. Humans, that’s not one of our like cool things we do. So, how do we do that? So, if you’re playing with a cat, what is it like to be? What is it like to be a bird? And, And, in that way, hopefully you can start to unravel the humanness that you have and find some of your Humana, I call it humanamality and really dig into this embodied experience. It’s doing with another, and that’s where we find this spark in the magic.

And that’s the same thing with training. I love training cats. I love it. To see that moment when they go, “Oh, that’s all I got to do?” Like dogs are like, “oh my, god! I got it right!” And cats, are like, “That was it? Okay. We got this.” And so, in that sense, that moment where you’re sharing is enriching and that’s enriching for both species, it takes some investment, but the reward and the return on that investment is beyond. So whether you’re using a clicker, whether you’re using a verbal marker, whether you just want to give them a treat, when they look at you for a shy cat, or you want to teach them a little agility course, if you’ve set up your environment, do a little kitty par core in your living room, all of those things give an opportunity for a shared experience. And I think those are some of the most enriching experiences, are shared experiences. There’s lots of opportunities out there to learn about training cats, and, and just be, just get in and do, don’t worry about getting it right. We’re not going out and doing show cat agility trials. Just be in it. And if you get it wrong, if you’re using positive reinforcement, who cares. But share the experience with your cat. 

And that, I think those are the two things environment and shared experiences. Those, if I was going to see if you pick the top two, those are it, when it comes to enriching cats, really, and I could just go, and stop me because I am just like, I am so excited rambling here. Like my brain is just like firing on like a million cylinders. 

[00:18:33] Emily: I actually do think that it’s valuable to let you ramble because a lot of this stuff is things that people need to hear, and we don’t really talk about, I think people tend to, just as humans, not I’m not attacking anyone, but as, as as a species, we tend to take a really formulaic approach to things like I have to play with this toy.

I have to build this thing I have to do. And I think the really important message in what you’re saying is, instead of thinking of it as this formula, like a checklist of things that you have to do, think about what the cat’s experience is and build your strategies around their experience, instead of having this checklist that is detached from the cat’s experience in a way. This is a callback to in season one, we talked about anthropocentrism. Where we’re, we’re approaching everything from our perspective, instead of considering the animal’s perspective and what that feels like for them. So, if we really get nerdy about learning more about our species, their natural history, their ethology what are their species-typical behaviors, what are their sensory experiences, all of that.

And then we go, what can I do to get them to experience that thing and do that thing. And I love that you said we’re getting them to do the innate behaviors in a safe way, because that’s what enrichment is, right? It’s how do we let them be the cattiest cat, they can be in safe, healthy, inappropriate ways so that we’re not putting them in danger or putting other animals or people in danger. And that’s the dichotomy, a lot of people feel like I either have to have this animal who acts like an animal and endangers everybody or have to have this really disciplined tightly battened down, approach to animal care. And it doesn’t have to be either, or you can let your animal be the animal-iest animal they are in safe, healthy, and appropriate ways. Your ramble was super valuable. 

[00:20:34] Miranda: Yeah, yeah, no, thank you for that. So yeah, we just want them to live their best cat lives. And we want to live our best human lives and there are ways we can do that together. And sometimes even it’s, if we have a multi-species space, dog’s living their best dog lives with cats. Some of the most beautiful relationships that I personally have experienced are friendships between a dog and a cat. 

So, I used to have a cat named RoRo. We called her RoRo the Honeybadger. there’s a reason for that name. However, her friendship with my Dutch shepherds was absolutely beautiful, and she loved dogs in a way that, she was fine with other cats, she’d play with other cats. She was cool, but she loved the dogs. And making sure that they had time to be with each other, and play their little games that they, that they created. I didn’t train them. They created these games amongst themselves. And sometimes that social enrichment too. So thinking about who, who is your cat’s best friend? It doesn’t have to be you, if you can provide a best friend, that’s not you, I’m S I’m on the last on Maisie’s list, as her best friend in this household. But do I always, watch when she starts chirping, when my husband comes home and they have, he picks her up and they have their little moment she’ll follow him around the house sometimes. And the dogs are not allowed in his office. That’s the space where the cats can go and have their one-on-one time with him. So, we have these ways that we’ve built social fluidity into our household and not all cats are going to appreciate that. Caveat, there are cats that they want to have human friends and that’s it. And that’s okay. But it’s knowing what is enriching for every individual cat, and, and what they need. And that’s, I think one of the other things, are you talking about the formulaic piece of it? If we’re saying cats need to have a cat tree, maybe that cat doesn’t, maybe it has a physical condition that doesn’t really make cat trees enjoyable. So, what else can we do? 

[00:22:52] Emily: Or even just textual preferences, right? Like I’ve met cats who were like, this carpet thing is gross and they, and they choose other substrates and so like the cat, tree’s not going to be it for them because they’re not into carpet. 

[00:23:04] Miranda: Yeah, scratching is so substrate preferential, right? And, and is it vertical, or horizontal, or ramped, or I had one cat that loved laying upside down and scratching, like that was fun to try and figure out how to make that work. But it was cool that we did, and the, the cat was excited. 

And I think part of what that comes down to is there are species-typical things that we can think of that might work for the large majority of cats. However, don’t forget the individual variation. There’s going to be cats that are going to be outside of the norm, and that’s cool because just like welfare is an N equals one proposition. So is enrichment, and it really matters to understand the individual in front of you. 

And that doesn’t matter the species, we’re talking cats today, but that is really true for all species. Think about how does a cat-cat? And you can start at this species-typical level, but then drill down to the individual in front of you. And is it that they like watching birds? Is it that they, are they really into audible stuff? Do they want to hear things, or do they want to smell things? What is that sensory capacity that turns them on or turns their cattiness, amplifies it, what is it? 

And all those things and to, and think about if the environment, physical, and social, and interactive stuff is truly enriching, then that is an improved, positive welfare. I love David Mellor’s work here, and we, we all know the five freedoms, right?

[00:24:42] Emily: The five freedoms are, freedom from hunger, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury, or disease, freedom to express normal behavior and freedom from fear and distress.

[00:24:56] Miranda: That’s a staple in thinking about behavior and welfare. But Mellor, around 2016 started publishing some work saying we need to flip the script. That we, the five freedoms are good, we shouldn’t get rid of them, but we need to take the next step. And that means we need to look at the five provisions, and he outlines those five provisions as not just avoiding poor welfare, which is really what underlies the five freedoms, is making sure we’re avoiding poor welfare. To flipping that script to how do we promote good welfare. And Mellor really takes that on, and I love his work and how he talks about that, that we have done our job a lot in the five freedoms area. So, let’s, let’s do even more, and I love that thought process. And if we think of it as not just providing the minimum for our cats, but really getting to them as individuals, and promoting their individual positive welfare thing, we’ve made it. And that also gives us tools, so if we know how to promote positive welfare, then in moments of positive welfare, moments of distress, moments of anxiety, moments like that, then we have tools that can help support cats through those moments. 

So, if we know how to play with our cat and they particularly like a wand toy, they like feather or whatever. And you know that, and there’s a moment where we’re all starting to go into people’s houses again, and they haven’t seen anyone, but you for two years, and now your neighbor came over. And they’re like, what?! And you’re like, cool. I’m going to talk to the neighbor over there. They’re there, they’re standing the door out on the other side of the room. We’re going to have this fun thing. And so, we, now, if we’ve really done our homework, and it doesn’t have to be ugh homework, I love homework. I’m weird.

But if we think about really getting to know our companion animals, and cats in particular, cats are so environmentally sensitive that if we have these tools that can help bridge those moments of distress or anxiety, and maybe it’s not playing with a feather toy, maybe it’s we had an Amazon delivery two days ago and that box is sitting over there. And that, that neighbor stopped by, but you know what? I’m going to toss a couple of treats in that box and put it down and let the cat go at it. And come on, we all know about cats and boxes, like seriously. Like I love the study where they drew, use tape to draw a box on the floor, and cat still go sit in them like it’s clearly a species-typical important thing, cause they do it a lot. 

[00:27:45] Emily: What is that even about? I need to know. 

[00:27:48] Miranda: I don’t know, I don’t really know, but it’s fascinating. But, but to think about not only enrichment in the it’s, it’s a moment, it’s done, it’s over, but enrichment as a tool to provide support, and less good welfare moments, and we all have them in the life is life, right? It happens. So, if we have these tools and we’re using that, then we can, we can support them in ways we couldn’t before. And I think that’s also an kind of an untapped beauty of enrichment, is that it can be not just in that moment, and it’s done, and over, it’s promoting positive emotional response. It’s promoting familiarity, and generalization in different situations with tasks. You can use it for some counter conditioning done properly. There’s all these things that you can do. And it’s, and, and they’re, they’re low hanging fruit really. 

And it makes everyone’s life better, humans included. We, we can’t forget our own enrichment. And if we’re doing these easy things and we’re improving everyone’s lives, I think that that’s a fantastic thing to do.

[00:28:56] Emily: Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit, I want to tease out something that you sort of mentioned in passing, about diet, changing the diet to, to promote olfactory enrichment or whatever. My, my experience and I think there’s, there’s some, ethological reasons for this is that it is legitimately more challenging for people to do a diet conversion with cats than dogs.

And I think that’s just because dogs are opportunistic scavengers, whereas cats are obligate carnivores and they’re hunters, and they learn what food is during their critical socialization period, whereas dogs are like, “If it’s there and it smells good, it’s food.” Cats are like, “Nah, like this is food and this is how I eat. And the them’s the rules.”

But I agree with you, that diet conversion is such a huge component of enrichment, a lot of times for medical reasons. But like you said too, often just to elicit species-typical behaviors, we need to get them away from just eating crunchies, or just eating this one type of food, or whatever they’re doing.

So, can you talk a little bit about how you recommend doing diet conversion for cats you know, so that we can enrich them in whatever, whatever way we’re, we’re, we’re needing to do for an individual. 

[00:30:08] Miranda: Yeah. I mean, I always start when it comes to diet, is one, keep your veterinarian in the loop. Always work with your medical professional, right? Because that’s putting stuff into a biological system, and we want to make sure that it’s not doing harm number one, and that actually there’s some benefit to what what’s going in. So, I always say always, if you have concerns, especially if you have a cat like mine with Rory who does have some allergy related issues that are related to certain proteins. So, I have to be careful, and if I had worked with my vet, we wouldn’t really have gotten to the point where we could identify that. So, always keep that in mind, and if you are going to introduce something, always watch your cat to make sure that they don’t have a negative reaction to that change. So, don’t give something to go away for the weekend. If you’re going to do that, be there. So, with those caveats, I will say that it is easier with cats who very young have been introduced to multiple types of things. So, whether it’s tripe of food, whether it’s kibble, or like cooked chicken, or it’s canned cat food, know the different textures, the slices versus the pates versus the chunks versus the whatevers. And so, there’s all these different ways we can introduce variety, right? So, whether it’s flavor and protein, whether it’s the, the consistency of the food, canned, rolled, cooked all of those things, it’s always younger start easier to start younger. 

However, that being said, just be patient. Don’t we always introduce slowly with these sorts of changes with cats. A, so we can monitor their physical response, and make sure it’s not going to cause any harm. And two, because very quickly, you can also cause an aversion to the food that is working. And so, we, food aversion is one of the trickiest things because it is incredibly strong. It is incredibly difficult to change once it occurs. So, just go slow, and make it fun. They can, if they’re used to eating kibble in the bowl, then put the new canned food on the lick mat. We all know captain tongues. Come on. Like they, they use their tongues in ways that are just like uber fascinating. So, give them that opportunity. Or introduce it in as one of five training treats, if you’re doing some training, don’t just go, “New stuff!” 

Cats will be like, “That’s not on the list, and you did not check the list, and therefore we’re done.” Like they, they will just opt out, hard pass. Slow and steady wins the race with that, but fun wins the race with that too. And I always say it doesn’t mean we’re eliminating the food that they, that they were working with, or the food that they enjoyed, or it’s not about eliminate and change. It’s about adding to creating variety. And you may have a cat that just doesn’t. I had a cat that I tried for a long time and he just would not, he was older, he was very particular and you know what? Then we just used the food he was eating in more enriching ways. 

And so, you just have to, again, it’s, like I said, at the beginning it’s puzzles and figuring out which puzzle pieces make the picture that your cat enjoys the best. That’s really what it’s about. And making sure that we’re meeting all their needs. As you mentioned, Emily, they’re obligate, we can’t get around that and they need that protein from food sources. They do not synthesize it as well, from other sources. So always check with your, with your medical, your veterinary professional, but go slow and go fun. Like I think if you go those two things go slow, but fun, then you’re probably fine.

[00:33:45] Emily: I think it’s really important to bring up the fun part because one of the things I see a lot is that people are so concerned about the diet change, that they lose awareness of the cat’s perception of them in relation to the food, and how much we can hover and worry, and bring all this like anxiety to the process. Which creates an association of like new food equals big, big anxiety feels, and so one of the things that is so important about the play component of diet conversion is that it’s hard to be stressy helicopter mom when you’re playing. That’s also like an incompatible behavior for the humans, so that we’re not inadvertently becoming these Harbinger’s of like big, bad anxiety feels around the food that we’re trying to convince animals to love. “You should totally love this thing. That’s stressing me out. It’s amazing!” 

[00:34:38] Miranda: “What do you mean you don’t love ocean white fish? I don’t understand!” Yeah. Yeah. They’re gonna be like, no, no, you’re being weird, mom, I shouldn’t touch that. I’m pretty sure that’s bad stuff. 

It does change the human behavior and we forget how, how much of master observers or companion animals are. And their master observers of us. You know, they will tell us more about ourselves if we pay attention to them, then we do, if we pay attention to ourselves. So yeah, just don’t, don’t make it a thing if you don’t make it a thing. It’s not thing usually. And if you can’t handle it, you need to watch it. Then, webcams are super team.

I love, I love using webcams and, and if I want to introduce something, but don’t want to be the weird helicopter mom, then I will introduce it, turn on the webcam, put it where I can see that area. And I walk away so that I don’t become that weirdo that my cat is wondering, like why I’m all of a sudden, gone through a massive personality change. And I, go do my thing. There’s ways to, to observe without being in the present moment. 

[00:35:41] Emily: I tell my clients, you can, you don’t even need a webcam set up a zoom session with yourself and point your computer at the room where your cat is, and then look at your phone, zoom session yourself. It’s a free webcam. 

[00:35:55] Miranda: Great idea. Yes, for sure. There are ways to be there and not be there and yeah, because humans are weird about being there. 

[00:36:04] Emily: So, I’m going to shift topics just a little bit. We’re still talking about cat enrichment, but aside from inappropriate elimination, the second most common behavior issue that clients come to us for with their cats is intra- household aggression. So, I was hoping you could talk about sociability in cats and what social enrichment looks like.

We talked about inter-species relationships and sometimes cats only like humans and all of that, but let’s focus a little bit more on this topic because this is a huge one, I think. Why is aggression among conspecifics so common, and what can people do to prevent that? Again, we’re not going to give free behavior advice for serious maladaptive behaviors in this podcast, but what are some things that people can look for to be proactive in preventing it and just understanding why this is so common. 

[00:36:49] Miranda: That’s a great question, and yeah, it’s super important because we know that more households now include companion animals, include multiple companion animals, and we tend, most households tend to have multiples of the same species. So yeah, cat-cat stuff is tricky, but there’s always one. I always say first, if you have the option and we don’t always, but if you have the option select wisely. I always say, this is an arranged marriage, so we want to try to make sure we’re matching personality, activity level, those sorts of things. 

When it comes to what we know about cat-cat, we need a lot more research. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding cat-cat social behavior, especially with the domestic cat. So, we do know that we have a lot of information about very young cats, right? We have a lot of information about the impact of having mom present during those early developmental periods, having their litter mates present. We don’t have a lot of really good solid information about cat cat, social behavior at adult introduction. So, we’re learning. 

That being said, what we currently know, is that cats are quite socially fluid. So, across the species, there’s a wide range of individual variation in sociability. Some cats are truly the social butterfly, the social director. Some cats are much more loners and don’t have the social skills. Some of that is based on what we think in that cats often, if they remain together uninterrupted by human influence, we’re looking at free roaming cats a lot for these types of studies, and so when we look at those things, we understand that particularly the males often disperse adolescents.

So, males tend to leave the group, tend to go on their own. And don’t necessarily form, they may have one friend, right? But they don’t form groups, typically the boys tend to bachelor pads. The girls do tend to stay around more frequently in the often co-rear in those types of familial lives. So that cats are matrilineal in that sense, as far as social organization. However, we’ve interrupted all of that in the domestic cat a lot.

And so, when we take them quite young and then place them in homes in they’re introducing themselves to others, that’s hard. One of the things that I actually do quite a bit personally is that I like to one, do protected contact, and play, and enrichment within this protected context. So, that they’re getting some classical effect that, “Oh, I’m playing and Fluffy’s over there.” Or “I’m playing and I’m really not a friend, but you know what, Josie doesn’t seem to interact me that much, this okay. Cause she stays behind that gate.” Or whatever it is. So going slow, but, but again, creating shared moments that are positive, interactively positive, and that doesn’t have to be physical contact, just has to be good. Then that is important. So, providing food enrichment within sight of each other providing playtime. 

Before I was at the ASPCA, and I had a private consulting business, I had a case of two cats moderately older male cat, and they introduced a two-year-old male cat. And it was not good initially, and when I went to do the consult, they thought they had the one cat safely confined by a baby gate at the top of the stairs, and the other cat in the bottom half of the house. And when I came in and literally within minutes, cause now there’s a new person, right? So, what’s going on in the environment changed the upstairs cat blew through that baby gate, rushed downstairs, and they had a meeting of the minds at the end of the hallway. And I was like, “Okay, we’re, we’re in this now where’s the toys?” And because I knew the youngster, they had, they had told me in a previous conversation, the youngster was very much a predatory play. He loved to hunt and grab and jump around and do all those things.

So, we grabbed the toy and I immediately started playing with the youngster. In the beginning, the older cat was “AH!” And he, he automatically run away. But in this moment, because we redirected the attention, they were able to have a shared moment together. And that was the tipping point where it wasn’t best friends, but they were able to safely coexist. And we were able to identify the outlets that the younger cat needed and make sure he was getting those on a regular basis and give the adult cat, the older boy, a chance to just watch, that was his enrichment. I’m just going to watch that thing going on over there, and I’m going to rest safely over here on my cat tree. And we did some rearranging of where things were in the house so that there were, highways that they could move around each other without having to do these encounters. But it really, really was super cool to see. 

All we had to do was introduce some play, and then they had shared moments that were good with each other. And from there a few weeks later, they were actually sleeping, just a couple of feet away on the couch and there were no more attacks. There are no more of those things. So, that inter cat stuff can be tricky, but it’s often because we just need to find a way to meet the needs of every individual in the group in a way that doesn’t impinge on the needs of someone else. That’s hard sometimes, but it’s important. And I think with cat-cat, we, we know where there was so much talk out there about, they don’t have good negotiation skills, they don’t tend to know how to break off at once aggressive interaction begins, they don’t know how to, how to walk away or you just use their words if we use a human term.

So, we’re still learning and there’s a lot we need to learn. But what we do know is early life has its influences. We tend to interrupt some of that when we place them in homes young. And then when we adopt them as older, we’re just, we don’t know a lot about that individual history. So, we have to set up the environment, set up the social landscape in ways that everyone has their needs met. And then oftentimes cats get along quite well. I’ve probably fostered 1500 cats in my, a lot of those were kittens, but it’s over a long period of time. And some of my more fascinating was when I would have adults and we would set up X pens and they would have their own zones, and to watch them negotiate with each other.

And I would find who was socially skilled and, and I introduced them to the socially skilled cat first through a protected contact. And, and to watch that, to watch this, this beautiful, like dance between them is just so super cool, and I’ve got some really cool video of one really big white cat named I named Emerson, cause he was very pensive. So, after Ralph Waldo. And then I had this young, like two-year-old female who had just had it, who had just finished raising a litter of kittens, and she was just like, ” You’re fine.” And she would just, she would lay like six feet outside the ex-pen and just watch him, and then I play with her a little bit and he’d be like, ” Why is she getting treats?”

He was a big catty, like food. “Why is she getting treats?” And then I’d be, “Oh, you watched her good job.” And I’d toss him one. 

And then it got to this beautiful moment where she started to flank the ex-pen, and he was like, ” What? You’re not, oh, we’re friends?” And that moment where he was just like, we can, it was so cool. 

And because we don’t know a lot and we’re still learning a ton; we sometimes interrupt things a little too quickly with cats. We’re still trying to negotiate what play looks like versus what is not play in cats, especially when they’re having physical play with one another. And those are all things that we’re just trying to learn. And I think that in the next 5, 10, 20 years, we may have a piece of this figured out, but it really is important to, think about meeting needs individually in separate spaces, if needed initially, and then, always get professional help if there really is a challenge. 

But I will tell you, I, personal story. So, we adopted Maisie when she was six months old, she was horribly aggressive in the shelter. She was coming forward and trying to hurt people, so she came home with me as foster, and so I set her up in a crate, and that night my husband comes in and, “Oh, who’s this?” He reaches in and just picks up, and from that moment though, they have been like BFFS. My husband is like a weird cat guy, like cats that don’t like me love him. So, it just, it works. 

When we had lost several of our other cats, so Maisie grew up with one cat that she actually did enjoy. She passed away and she’s never really liked females. She’s always preferred boys. I prefer the boy cats too, it’s just my preference. And so, as I get, you know, “Okay, as long as, I don’t know, what are we going to do?” And so, Lady Gray had been born in our home and my husband thought I really wanted Lady Gray, I really didn’t, I thought he was wanted her. It was a weird adoption story, but she’s ours now. And I was like, “Maisie doesn’t like girls, I need to get a boy to be friends with Lady Gray so that it’s not two more females, and I need a younger cat to have the social enrichment for Lady Gray, cause she’s a very young girl, she needs a friend. Then low and behold, Lady Gray is, still the odd one out, and Rory and Maisie are attached to the hip. Every day they sleep together every day, they allogroom. Every day, like they follow each other around like a pair of mischievous kids.

And they, they get into trouble together. So, sometimes I will say too, with this cat-cat stuff, even though I was trying to make it less stressful, but have a friend for one cat, it ended up being completely different in how it worked out. And so, that means I have to provide more individual enrichment for Lady Gray, because she has less of a enriched social landscape because they’re kind of like, she’s weird. So, they don’t really let her get involved. They don’t let her play the reindeer games a lot. So, she tends to hang out with the humans or with the dogs. 

So again, just pay attention. The social landscape is challenging. Even in my own house, what????? Here I am, I’ve done this for 20 years, worked with cats, and I thought I had made a choice that was going to make one pairing work to give the pressure off of one, and I totally got it wrong. Just also be aware as they age, those relationships will change. And as, as individuals leave and join households, those will change. All of those changes, necessitate a re-evaluation of what we’re doing and the enrichment we’re providing for them.

Kitten enrichment’s not the same as senior enrichment, and as your cat grows, their enrichment should change. 

[00:47:55] Emily: Yes, absolutely. I think that was actually a really great place to land because the next question that I typically ask people is what are some observable goals and actionable items people can take away, but like the theme of that is, pay attention to the arrangement of your house and how your cats are moving through the house and how that influences, how they interact with each other. That to me, is the takeaway from that story, is you have given so much thought and you teach your clients to give so much thought to how the cats are interacting with each other, and how those dynamics can change because of environmental factors like furniture arrangement and the other cats in the house and then the friendships that happen. So that that is, I think for me, I’m choosing for you. I’m not going to ask you in this interview, I’m choosing for you. That to me, I think is the actionable item that people should take away from this conversation, is pay attention to how your house is laid out and how that influences how your cats interact with each other. 

[00:49:00] Miranda: Yes, that’s a great takeaway. And I’m constantly reevaluating our own house all the time, so yeah. That’s, that’s cool stuff.

[00:49:08] Emily: So, we allow our Pro Campus and Mentorship Program members to submit questions for our guests, and the most popular question for you was what to you are some of the biggest differences between, training cats versus dogs? 

[00:49:25] Miranda: There’s obviously some species type differences, right? I mean, training 160-pound great dane, which I used to have versus my eight pound cat. I mean, there’s just different things you can do. But I think as far as the qualitative piece maybe is where I want to answer this. Training cats, we tend to use a lot of equipment when we train dogs. 

And regardless of your choice of equipment, we tend to use it. We tend to use collars, leashes, harnesses, crates, like stuff. I typically don’t use a lot of that stuff when I’m training cats. Our culture has not used a lot of equipment with cats, and so I think how you think through the control mechanisms, or the environment is different when you’re working with a cat versus a dog. So, I would say that’s a difference, is, is just culture specific equipment type use. We are starting to see more leash harness type things with cats, and I do love leash and harness training cats and getting them that outdoor enrichment, if, if they’re a confident cat that enjoys those things. But we don’t tend to do that a lot. And so, I think to me, that’s just a human, maybe cultural culturally influenced difference, and how we do that. And we, we use food rewards with both. We use play rewards with both. And some people, I’ve heard in the past have said, your sessions with cats have to be shorter. And I think that’s true for any novice animal. 

I don’t care whether they’re a cat, a dog, a bird, novice means easier, shorter sessions, more, more simple success until we learn how to learn. We build rapport and relationship, their expectations. And so, I don’t know that that’s horribly different. But I think probably because we spend less time deliberately or formulaically thinking about training cats, we don’t always achieve those goals that we sometimes set for dogs. 

I have to, have to put my darling Frisky Franz and in this podcast at some point, and this is a great way to do it. So, Franz was a senior cat when I got him, he was 12. And he and I had a truce, he was a foster cat. He had been kicked outside after a divorce. Had been attacked by a neighborhood dog, he had some street smarts. He was a, he’s a wily old, old, cat. 

And for several months, he and I didn’t, we were ships in the night. I kept him safe. I kept him warm. I kept him fed. But he was not interested in, in any interaction. He was quite aggressive with people. And he was watching me train a kitten who was just not interested and I, you know, it was using a clicker and food, and she was just kind of, uh, Abyssinian “AHH!” Sort of kitten, we were trying some impulse control stuff with her. And he watched and watched, and he came over after she was just, I’m out. She just, her brain, she couldn’t. He walked over to me and sat right in front of me and gave me very direct eye contact. And I was terrified, actually, because they didn’t know what was going to happen next. And so, I clicked, and I put a piece of food in front of him, and he ate it. And then I stood up very gently, and I backed away, and I moved over just a couple of feet, and I just waited. And he walked, and he sat down in front of me again, and gave me very direct eye contact. And I was like, ” Oh, my God.” So, I, so that was like the beginning of the relationship and with Franz because he was older, people often too would think, “Eh, he’s an old cat, just let him live out his life.” Um, no, Franz directed the entire universe in which he existed. That’s how he was.

And so, for him that would have been horribly boring and an unenriched life. So, we did leash and harness training with him. We did clicker training. He used to travel to, he actually went to Clicker Expo with me a couple of years and actually presented. And so, he did, he taught children how to clicker, train cats. And he did all of this after 12. 

We would go out on leash and harness and go walking. He actually liked dogs. So, he got, he actually went to a Run for Rover, which was a pet emergency fund dog event. And he was the cat rep. And he ran agility courses, when he started to have some cognitive decline part of his treatment was actually going out into novel environments. So, we walked through the pet store. We went and ate lunch at a cafe outside, we did these things. And so, the, that enrichment is actually what helped his cognitive decline be less disastrous for him because those things were super important.

So, in those, all those sorts of ways, again, don’t underestimate your young cats. He was, he used to go to puppy training class. And he, he would train like he had a trainer, and the puppies would all be around, and the puppies were getting exposure to a cat in a controlled environment. And he could train for 45 minutes at a time easily. And, and most people don’t expect that. And he may be an extreme version, right?

That individual variation. However, enrichment isn’t a young cat’s game. It’s a cat’s game, regardless of where they are in their life. Comes back to that,” What’s the difference between between training cats and dogs?” Yeah, not a whole lot, not much. What you put into it is what you’re going to get out of it.

But I think the equipment thing is probably the thing that jumps to the beginning of my mind is, is a stark difference between them. But the methods are the same. The, the approach is the same. It’s about being in the moment together working and regardless of what species is on the other end of that moment, there’s magic waiting. 

[00:54:55] Emily: What a sweet story. All right, so I have a few questions that I ask everybody at the end. So, we’re going to launch into those now. What is one thing you wish people knew about this topic, your profession, or enrichment your choice? 

[00:55:08] Miranda: Oh, that is so many things. I’m going to go with enrichment. What I wish people knew about enrichment. It’s not as hard as you think it is. And simple is best. Keep it simple, right? The kiss method, “Keep it Simple, Silly.” and we deserve enrichment too, as humans. 

[00:55:27] Emily: Yes. 

[00:55:28] Miranda: And we can find that in our relationships with our companion animals, that’s “rewarding for both of us. I think people hear enrichment and again, they go to those checklists or formulas or like to do’s, right? And sometimes, it can be overwhelming to have a to-do list. Just be there. 

[00:55:45] Emily: Yeah. If you are observing your animal, if you are good at observing your animal, they’ll tell you everything you need to know about what their needs are and how to meet them. 

[00:55:55] Miranda: Yeah. They’re not shy.

[00:55:56] Emily: Yeah.

[00:55:56] Miranda: They often have loud voices. If you are willing to hear them

[00:55:59] Emily: Yeah. What is one thing you’d love to see improved in your field? 

[00:56:02] Miranda: Collaboration. 

[00:56:04] Emily: Yeah. 

[00:56:05] Miranda: I’d love to see collaboration in a lot of ways from research, to applied settings, to academia and non-academic outlets. I’d love to see, I love to see that, and to see, and not just necessarily collaboration between individuals but collaboration between these different spheres. 

And that’s part of why I took the job I’m in now is to try to help build those bridges and, and, really in the interest of serving the animals and our world. And if we do that, we serve ourselves too. 

[00:56:35] Emily: Yes. Beautiful. What do you love about what you do? 

[00:56:38] Miranda: That there’s always something new to learn, that we don’t have, we don’t have all that, we don’t have many of the answers. And, and I love that. And it’s not just learning from research. I’m, I’m an I nerd out when I read studies and all those things, yes. But honestly, learning from other than human animals, and stepping back and letting them teach you and being open to hearing them. I honestly, those are the moments I learn. I learned the, the soul lessons, and the things that I then apply in the more academic or more human anthropocentric places. They are amazing teachers also. And so I think that I will never stop learning. You know, I joke that I, I have a problem and that I’m constant, I want to learn everything all the time, every day. And I have to pace myself, but just learn, and not knowing also does mean that you are stupid or, or less than it just means you haven’t encountered that, that piece of information yet in your life, and everyone encounters information at different times in their lives, or maybe multiple times, but you didn’t hear it the first 10 times.

And now, now you did but be open because the learning is really amazing and learning from everyone in your environment. I learned this morning watching the deer outside my window, I learned by watching my gecko and how he chooses to approach food delivery, or I learn, learn, just learning just means open to seeing, and hearing, and experiencing, and that’s what makes life, in my perspective, makes life wonderful. And. Whatever outlet you choose to use for your learning journey, it’s a learning journey, nonetheless, and none is more or less valuable than another. 

[00:58:38] Emily: Yes. Beautiful. Beautifully stated. I agree. What are you currently working on? If people want to work more with or learn from you, where can they find you? 

[00:58:47] Miranda: So, I’m not currently doing any private consulting because I have a big lift on my plate at the ASPCA, so working on the behavioral sciences team. 

I do have, we, we obviously are always trying to elevate the importance of behavior, as a profession, shelter behavior as a profession. So that’s really my big lift right now.

I have a couple other research projects, small. That I working on that I’m sure I’ll once I get them in a better place, a more presentable place that I will talk about about them more publicly. But we’re always looking, to just elevate everyone, in this arena and really trying to do some good research, it’s going to help us improve the lives of animals along the way, and the lives of the humans who are caring for them. And that to me is super important. So yeah, we’re working on some really cool initiatives. You can always check out the, I think the ASPCA has their goals and visions online you can always check those out. But I’m working with ICAT care and really trying to elevate the the space for cats in the world. And that’s cats across the world. So not just here in the US or North America, but there’s a lot of cultural differences in how we approach cats across the world. So, we’re really trying to just elevate this space where cats exist, where they are is, is important. And that’s important for ICAT Care, and the ASPCA, and myself personally. 

[01:00:08] Emily: It hasn’t been such a pleasure to speak with you, and I look forward to conversations in the future. 

[01:00:15] Miranda: Absolutely, it’s been a joy to be here and to talk cats. So thank you for, for having me. 

[01:00:20] Allie: What did I say about there being so many amazing nuggets in this episode that are applicable to all species? I love Miranda’s take on keeping things simple and making sure that we’re caring for ourselves as well as our pets. Plus, I just love getting to listen about cats, since there’s not as much of a spotlight on them.

Hopefully, we’ll see cat stepping more into the spotlight in the years to come. Next week, we’ll be talking about learning how to play with your animal. 


Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also petharmonypro on Instagram, for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review, and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. A special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode. Our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay. Thank you for listening and happy training. 

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