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Today I’m going introduce a new set of science activities or experiments you can do with the assistance of your pet cat. Then I will go over the results from the cat “field observations” activity from last week.

Sniffs and Smells Activity
We all hear about the incredible sense of smell that dogs have, but what about cats? Scientists say that a cat’s sense of smell is not as sharp as a dog’s, but it is still better than a human’s. What do cats smell? Let’s make a list.

Cats use their sense of smell to

  • find food.
  • detect other cats (see results section below).
  • locate catnip.
  • detect enemies.

Can you think of any other ways that cats might use their sense of smell? Let me know if you can think of any.

Have you ever noticed that your cat seems to always show up when you or your parents are cooking certain foods? Have you ever noticed the opposite, that your cat avoids the kitchen when certain foods are cooking? One of my cats always shows up when I open a can of tuna fish. In fact her ability to tell when I’m even thinking of having tuna is “uncanny.” (Insert groan here.)

Simple Smells Experiment
Gather

  • large piece of paper or cardboard
  • notebook paper and pencil
  • some sort of timing device (optional)
  • a few mild and pleasant-smelling kitchen spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon; a few herbs such as mint, thyme and basil; and catnip. Make sure you have an adult’s permission to use the spices and herbs. Avoid pungent or strong spices which may repel or harm the cat.
  • an alert and interested cat or cats (you might want to chose a time when your cat is typically active, such as morning or around the evening meal.

Before your cat arrives, draw circles on the large paper for each spice or herb that you have gathered and label it. This helps you remember what you put down. Keep the circles fairly small and separated from one another.

Here's a photo to help you. (Note that I used a marker to make sure you could see the lines, but it would be better to use a pencil because markers might have an odor that would interfere with the test.)

smell test

Make a chart on the notebook paper with a column for the name of each spice or herb. Leave room to record your cat’s reaction to each. If your cat is interested in cooperating, you might even be able to time how long he or she spends smelling each test area. If you have more than one cat to test, prepare separate sheets for each one.

Lay the paper on the floor (a bare wood or tile is easier to clean if the cat spills the spices off the paper). If you have a regular place where you put down the cat food, you might want to try nearby. Place a small amount of spice or herb in two of the circles you labeled. Save the catnip for last, because it may cause a strong reaction that will interfere with the other tests.

Now, entice your cat to come check out the large paper. If your cat isn’t used to you giving it new toys and games, it may be unsure of what to expect. Be patient. Get on the floor and sit next to the sheet. It may come to see you and then investigate the sheet. Write down what happens. If the cat seems interested, then add two more items to smell and see which it prefers. Finally add the last item and the catnip. Again, record the results.

Catnip is a plant that may trigger a strong reaction in some cats. About 70% of cats will roll in the catnip when they smell it, try to eat pieces and just act in an excited way. They may become more active and want to play. They may run about “for no apparent reason.” Or they may lie down and lick themselves. Did your cat react? How did it react? Did it react to any of the other smells? If you tested two cats or more cats, how did they differ?

Results from “Field Observations” Activity last week

Did you get some good photos of your cat last week? Did you see it hold its tail in different ways? Did you see it make different facial expressions? What about behaviors? Did it do any things like the cat in the pictures last week?

Here are the results from our questions last week.

sleepy cat

Photo 1.
This cat is obviously sleeping. If you watched your cat throughout the day, you probably noticed it slept a lot. A normal cat sleeps from 14 to 17 hours a day. That’s one big cat nap!

Why does a cat sleep so much? Cats are normally most active at dawn and dusk, leaving the times in between to catch up on sleep. Other animals, however, are also most active at dawn and dusk, and they don’t sleep as much. Some people have suggested that domesticated cats are “sit and wait” predators, so they sit or lie down for long periods and with a few quick bursts of intense activity throughout the day. Also, during many of those hours of sleep the cat is only lightly asleep and can be awake and alert in an instant. Just try using the can opener or opening the door of the fridge, and you will see.

sniffing cat

Photo 2.
In this photo the cat is sniffing a post with its nose. Cats can both give and receive information to other cats by smells. If another cat has left a scent on this post, the cat may raise its head, open its mouth and make a kind of a grimacing look. You might interpret that as it having a bad reaction to the smell, but actually the cat is exposing a structure in its mouth called the vomeronasal organ. The behavior of exposing the organ is called flehman (horses do this, too). The organ helps the cat process the smells.

How do other cats lay the odors on the post? They can do it two ways. Cats have scent glands on their faces that they rub on objects. When your cat rubs on you, he is applying scents to mark you as his property. Male cats also raise their tails, back up to objects and spray urine to mark their territories.

rolling cat

Photo 3.

In this photo the cat is rolling on the bricks. This cat always loved to roll on the bricks. The bricks were rough. Also, the sand that the bricks were set into tended to come up to the surface, so the bricks had a coating of coarse sand. The cat rolled to scratch his back, although he might have left some scents that way as well. He also liked to roll in sand and then carry it into the house and sleep on the bed (see photo 1).

cat eating grass

Photo 4.
Mow, mow, mow the grass. My son and I once did a mock-umentary video of our “lions” grazing on the “Serengeti.” Why do cats eat grass? It is not for food, because cats lack the enzymes and gut fauna to digest cellulose. They actually eat the grass as roughage, or as a mechanical aid to stimulate regurgitation. Cats ingest their own fur when they groom themselves with their tongues. This fur mats together in the digestive system and produces “furballs.” Apparently it is easier for the cat's system if the cat regurgitates the furball than if it tries to pass them through. The grass helps with this clean out process.

In fact, if your cat does not have access to fresh grass, it may chew on houseplants. Beware of this, because some houseplants are poisonous. Grow or buy some cat grass and your cat will appreciate it.

Ready to learn more? We’ll have some more science activities with cats next weekend.
Until then, you might want to check these kits:

Fun With Your Cat Science Kit published by Scholastic.

We tested this kit, and it really was fun, both for us and for our cat. It comes with a useful (but not large) manual to explain the experiments you can do, with relevant and factual information about cats. The kit comes with materials to test questions such as
“Can your cat taste sweets?
“Can you train your cat to jump through a hoop? (Our cat walked through easily).
“Do cats see colors?”
It also has the equipment you will need to make your cat a catnip mouse and grow grass for your cat.

Fun With Your Cat Science Kit FWYC

We didn’t test this kit, but it looks fairly similar.

In the next few weeks we are going to cover some science activities you can do with your pet cat.

Prior to getting started with the activities, I have to share this. When I started writing this post, I did a quick Internet search to check what science activities with cats were available. I found a website with instructions for a preschool activity on demonstrating how to wash a cat. If you have ever tried to wash a cat, you will understand why number 7 below made me laugh out loud.

(Please do not actually try this as an activity for preschoolers).

Materials needed for the Activity:
1. Cat or Kitten, for demonstration purposes.
2. A Cat Brush.
3. Pet Shampoo.
4. Bucket or Baby Bath.
5. Jug.
6. Towel
7. Flee Powder.

Although I did once have a cat that enjoyed a bath (or at least didn’t fuss), most of the cats I have tried to bathe act like they have been powdered by “flee powder!”

For our first real activity:

To start learning more about your cat, you might want to start observing its behavior closely. My son enjoyed taking his cheap digital camera and following the cat around taking candid shots. If your camera doesn’t do so for you, record the time and date of each photo. Take some notes about what you see your cat doing at different times of day. This is great data recording practice. If you get enough data, you can even graph your cat’s daily activity patterns. Let me know if you need some more information on this.

Here are some of the results. Can you tell what the cat is doing? Why do you think he might do these things? The answers will be posted next week.

1.

cat on bed

2.

cat by post

3.

cat on ground

4.

cat with grass

Big Note: Before I get 100’s of angry comments from bird lovers about how the cat is outside, let me assure you the cat in these pictures was in a tiny fenced area with plenty of supervision. I can personally attest that he never touched a single bird throughout his entire life.

And I can also assure you that he was not positioned, posed or harassed for any on the photos.

2

My family and I were just talking about how much we enjoy our pets, and I thought it would be fun to investigate some science-related activities you can do with pet animals.

This week let’s start with mice. Be sure to leave a comment and tell me what pets you’d like to see next week. I'd like to hear about your favorite pet.

mouse

Have you ever had a mouse, gerbil or rat for a pet? They are lively and interested in everything that is going on. Here are some science activities to help you explore mice. Many of them do not even require that you actually own any mice.

Identification/Classification of Rodents
Learning to identify or classify animals is an important scientific skill. What kind of animals are mice? They are a type of mammal known as rodents. If you are unfamiliar with this term, you might want to visit to the “What is a Rodent?” Activity Page to learn more.

While you are at it, think about how to identify rats, hamsters, gerbils and mice. What are the similarities, and what are the differences between them? If you are interested in getting a pet rodent, you might want to research what each type needs in the way of housing and care, and make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of ownership. For example, hamsters are likely to sleep all day, whereas mice are have active periods during the day making it easier to interact with them. Mice produce more urine and feces, however, so need to be cleaned more often than gerbils. Decide what factors are more important to you.

Did you know there are many types of wild mice? You might want to find out about some really wild mice like jumping mice, cactus mice and grasshopper mice. Spiny mice are an interesting species kept in zoos and used for research. Gerbils and kangaroo rats have special characteristics for living in the desert.

Food/Nutrition
What do mice eat? Did you say cheese? You hear about mice and cheese everywhere, but in truth it isn't a good idea to feed cheese to mice, it can make them sick. Can you believe it?

Now might be a great time to investigate what mice really do eat. One source of information, in addition to books and the Internet, might be the ingredients on the back of commercially available pet food. In a previous post, we introduced the idea of theme gardens. Once you have a good idea what mice eat, you can design a garden to grow some of their favorite foods, for example sunflowers and/or peanuts. If you don’t have mice, the birds and humans will still appreciate the results.

If you have some mice and you aren’t sure what they like to eat the best, you can do a food choice experiment. Gather a clean cardboard egg carton. Cut out a section of four egg carton cups. Place the items you want to test in the separate wells. You might want to mark them so that if all the food disappears, you’ll know which was which. Always provide your mice with something you know they like, so they won’t go hungry. Watch to see which food the mice eat first. Come back every hour and record which food is disappearing. To be very accurate, you can weigh each type of food beforehand on a kitchen scale and then at the end of the experiment. If the experiment doesn’t go as expected, think of ways to modify your methods and try again.

Making Houses and Toys
Another fun project might be design and build a house and/or nest box using wood or cardboard. The San Diego Zoo has a mouse house made out of bread! We saw one when we visited the zoo a few years ago. The idea seemed weird at first, but then we got to thinking it might be fun to live in a house that you can eat.

I cheated and used our bread maker to create the loaves. The mice seemed to enjoy being able to modify the structure and eat at the same time.

bread house

We found our mice always rush to investigate new objects. They also are very active, and love to run and climb. In addition to providing standard running wheels, you can design your own playthings like ladders or tubes to run through. Just make sure the toys are safe, that the mice can’t get tangled or fall. Adding toys and other fun items for the mice to examine helps with behavioral enrichment, so they don’t get bored.

Animal Behavior
Our mice are handled every day, so they are easy to pick up and hold. If you have new mice, you can tame them by gently picking them up and holding them. Once your mice are tame, you can train them to do tricks, such as sit on your shoulder. You can also make a maze, and see how fast the mice learn to go through it. We made a maze of lightweight CD cases, so there was no danger to the mice.

When you have mice, you will hear them make many different sounds and also behaviors. Investigate how mice communicate to one another. Recently scientists have found out that male mice sing a song when they meet females, but the sounds are ultrasonic, which means humans can’t hear them.

Mouse Development
Here is a link to an adorable story about a classroom mouse named Cheeser who gave birth. The website tells the story, complete with pictures of the growing young mice. If you don’t go to any other link, try this one.

Finally, be sure to write down your experiences, keep records, and share your stories. Who knows, you might come up with the next exciting scientific finding about mice.

Books:

There are literally 100's of fiction books with mice as main characters. Now would be a great time to reread some of your favorites or try a new one (images and linked titles are affiliate links to Amazon).

Could You be a Mouse? (1990) is a nonfiction book that is a fun game. The reader actually makes choices about what a mouse should do and then flips the pages to find out the results. Caution: There is a drawing of a dead mouse which could be disturbing to young and/or sensitive children. Older children should find it fun and informative.


Of Mice & Rats (Rookie Read-About Science) by Allan Fowler

Mice (Pet Care) by Rebecca Sjonger and Bobbie Kalman (2004)