Originally created 05/11/00

Student's kitten research to be televised



WINDER, Ga. -- A University of Georgia graduate student's research on kitten behavior will be featured on an upcoming segment of National Geographic Explorer.

A crew from the nationally syndicated television program came to film Nancy Gerstenfeld's work with kittens at Cedar Hill Farms, where owner Kathy Wade breeds Siberians, a relatively new cat breed.

The segment is scheduled for an initial broadcast from 8 to 9 p.m. May 21 on the CNBC cable network, said Sharon Crowell-Davis, Ms. Gerstenfeld's major professor at the university. The footage will be part of the final 15-minute segment on cat behavior, she said.

The research is pretty basic, explained Ms. Gerstenfeld.

She's mainly trying to determine how kittens' play patterns emerge as they develop from about 2 weeks to 8 weeks of age and to see whether males and females have different play patterns. But she's also trying to get answers to other questions, such as whether kittens develop "buddy" relationships, as older cats seem to do.

To get answers to these questions, Ms. Gerstenfeld has spent the past several months videotaping one litter of kittens after another, 120 hours of tape so far. After she tapes, she carefully analyzes the play pattern in a computer lab, recording how often each kitten is engaged in activities such as grooming, wrestling or clawing, who the kitten's partner was and so forth.

With an estimated 66 million domestic cats in the United States, and uncounted millions of feral cats besides, you'd think that scientists would have learned everything there is to know about cat behavior. But you'd be wrong, according to Dr. Crowell-Davis, who has joint appointments in the university's College of Veterinary Medicine and in the psychology department.

More researchers study the behavior of primates such as chimpanzees than the behavior of domestic animals such as dogs and cats, said Dr. Crowell-Davis, one of just a handful of U.S. researchers who study the behavior of domesticated animals.

"There's not much in the way of research going on in dogs and cats," she said. "There's a lot of anecdotal evidence, but few scientific studies. There's just a lot we don't know. There's a lot of really basic stuff that has to be sorted out about how these animals perceive the world and relate to each other."

As is often the case, some commonly accepted beliefs about cat behavior have turned out not to be true, Dr. Crowell-Davis said.

The idea that cats are solitary animals is not quite so, for example, Ms. Gerstenfeld said.

Studies of feral cats have shown that when food is abundant, they will form social colonies, Ms. Gerstenfeld said.

Ms. Gerstenfeld's research could have implications for pet owners, she said. If her research shows that male kittens prefer other males as playmates, that could turn out to be an important factor if a pet owner plans to have a two-cat household, for example.

Ms. Gerstenfeld said she believes she has spotted a pattern -- the kittens do tend to like playing with some of their siblings better than others. But she's not ready to make that a scientific assertion, she said.

"I think so, but I can't really say that scientifically until we finish analyzing the data," she said.

She's also wondering what the final data analysis will say about another question. Researchers studying cats in laboratories have found that male kittens wrestle more often and for longer periods than females. But no one's ever studied that question in more normal environments.

She's also run into some unexpected problems -- the queens at Wade's Winder cattery have given birth to several unusually small litters during the past few months. When there are only two or three kittens, it's hard to say much about gender or "buddy" preference, Ms. Gerstenfeld explained.

That raises still another question: Do kittens who grow up in small litters have different personalities than kittens from bigger litters?

"That's the problem with behavioral stuff," she said.

"It gets so complex."