Posted: August 29, 2011, 3 a.m. EDT
When Rats Love Cats
It seems rats have few fans. Most people disdain the rodents, cats want to eat them and even a parasite has it in for them.
Rats innately know this — and are pretty adept at avoiding predators. In fact, they can acutely sense cat urine. Where a cat has recently marked, rats high tail it out of there! We’ve all seen how rats use their own shadows to make a get-a-way, running alongside buildings or choosing to go underground to make their stealth escape. When a cat eyes a rat, the rodent strategy is to freeze. Cats detect motion, but even with their adept night vision, cats may not detect a rat holding absolutely still.
Rats’ survival may depend on their ability to escape cats. A single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii depends on cats to reproduce. So, the goal for this parasite — which often infects rodents — is to find its way into a cat.
A new study reveals that rats (and mice) infected with the parasite (toxoplasmosis) are actually attracted to the smell of cat urine, overriding their brain’s usual response. Those parasite-infected rodents wear a target on their backs, making themselves as far easier for felines to catch. They seem to actually seek out their enemy.
Scientists report Toxoplasma-infected rodents otherwise retain typical rodent phobias, including fears of dog odors, strange-smelling foods and open spaces. Infected rodents also don't appear to be sick — they only transform into cat-seeking magnets.
Scientists say Toxoplasma forms cysts in the brain and tends to concentrate in an area called the amygdala. Because that region in the brain is linked to fear and anxiety, the finding provides a new clue to how the parasite manipulates behavior.
Even scientists called their finding “astonishing.”
The concern about toxoplasmosis is that the parasite can make cats sick, and make some people sick when infected via cat feces. The real danger is to unborn children within the first trimester of pregnancy. Also all sorts of misconceptions exist, even from the medical community. I will comment on these in my next CAT FANCY CATalyst column.
Scanning Twice Might Save Lives
Earlier in August, at the Anti-Cruelty Society of Chicago, I had the honor of participating in the signing of a state bill that mandates all pets landing at Illinois dog and cat shelters be checked twice for a microchip (within 24 hours of intake). Dr. Robyn Barbiers, president of the Anti-Cruelty Society, called the bill “best practices,” at a bill signing press conference.
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn mentioned that Illinois is No. 1 among states when it comes to animal protection laws, and added, “I will continue to do what I can to protect those who don’t otherwise have a voice,” he said. “Pets are members of the family – they do matter.”
Barbiers stressed the importance of dog and cat microchipping. Barbiers rightly noted that even a simple tag is important, with the name, address and phone number of the owner. With that, the person who finds the cat or dog might not even need to go to a dog or cat shelter. Barbiers agreed that registration with the dog or cat microchip provider is equally as important as being microchipped. She pointed out that when dog or cat owners move, they must update that information with the micrcochip provider.
I said, “We’re getting better at microchipping dogs, though still a surprising number of dogs don’t have a microchip. With cats, it’s a shame so many remain without ID. Even indoor cats do get out. We need to also consider microchipping our pet cats as often as we microchip dogs.” See highlights of the bill signing here.
Want to check out ultimate cuteness? Two rare Clouded Leopards were born at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., on June 14. Point Defiance Zoo is one of only three zoos in the country that breeds endangered Clouded Leopards, along with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and the Nashville Zoo in Tennessee. The Point Defiance Zoo cub births brings the total number of cubs born this year in the United States to eight.
Exactly how many Clouded Leopards exist is unknown because the cats are so difficult to study. What is known is that the species is vulnerable to extinction in the wild. The inexperienced mother leopard, Chai Li, wasn’t doing well at caring for her cubs — so zoo staff interceded, and the cubs are being hand-raised. Watch videos of the cubs here.