Transgenic Cats and their afterglow

In this post: Cat Brain Parasite update!
New experiments into Feline Immunodeficiency Virus produce publicity friendly glowing kittens –
a genetically engineered cat


But first: Felinology round-up.

Following on from speculation reported last time as to why cats are loved by humans, new research published in Nature Neuroscience suggests an emotional response to animals may have become ‘hard-wired’ in the human right amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotion. This was picked up by ABC News in America, focussing on the cat angle. According to ABC’s Lee Dye, Florian Mormann, the new paper’s lead author said:

Given the amygdala’s prominent role in fear conditioning, we were indeed expecting stronger responses to hazardous animals such as spiders or snakes, but it turned out that all kinds of animals, dangerous and cute, elicit responses in the amygdala

This doesn’t explain why cats in particular evoke such love in humans, however, nor why science writers have used the research to comment on cats in particular. So ABC: a hiss and mild indifference at thee – it ain’t all about cats, it’s about humans and evolution.

Blogger Dan Tandy writes Dogs have masters, cats have staff:

A cat’s affection is almost medicinal in its effects. It’s believed cats can sense moods, fully aware if you’re upset or unwell. They’re very sensitive creatures and like to look after their staff. A cat will rub its head on you to mark its scent, secreted from an odourless sweat gland under its ear, essentially marking you as their property, along with everything else they see of course. This I think is also a sign of affection.

Research published early this year on human/cat dyadic behaviour was also widely reported, with reports focussing on the finding that cats seem to interact more with female than male companions. The research, in its own words, finds other significant factors however: the more ‘extrovert’ and ‘conscientious’ the human, the more complex the pattern of interactions, for example.

In our human–animal research, the effect of personality in dyadic relationships is a central focus…The cat, by its mere presence, may have an edge in this negotiation, at least with contact-seeking owners. The owners’ main asset in motivating the cat to be trustful, devoted and open to contact may be in proving to be a trustworthy and dependable social companion

The upshot of this is that the relationship is social and more than just a functional ‘you give me food, I catch mice’ trade-off:

human–cat companionship is not overtly operational in the sense that the partners go places and do things together. In many modern households, cats that get their food from their owners do not reciprocate by catching mice. But human–cat dyads are surely functional in a social sense. The cats in our dyads were regarded by their owners as valuable social companions and social supporters (Kotrschal et al. unpublished data). The social significance of this companionship is less clear on the cats’ side, although well-socialized cats do actively seek human contact (Leyhausen, 1988 and Turner, 2000). It is unlikely that cats do this just for the sake of obtaining food. Cats are clearly capable of attaching socially to “their” humans. In general, attachment in higher vertebrates is basically contingent upon, but not caused, by the provision of food (Bowlby, 1972 and Curley and Keverne, 2005).

Ever heard that high-pitched noise come from a cat, a cry and purr combined when the cat wants something really badly?Cats may have learned this to control humans, mimicking the noise made by a hungry infant.

All of this lends support to the idea that the solitary cat is a myth, and cats are indeed social animals.

Cat intelligence, meanwhile, seems to be the standard which humans attempting to create Artificial Intelligence aim for.

OK, back to the glowing cats. Yeah yeah, cats fluoresce now. Unsurprisingly, news of genetically engineered cats that glow under UV light, a cliché of genetically engineered animals, has been widely reported both in the mainstream and the blogosphere. A key issue is FIV, the feline equivalent of HIV, which this particular colony of cats are testing in the name of human and -as the reprots empahsise – cat health. Big up to the sans science blog for a quick and interesting post on the story, with good links and a sharp hiss at the clinic’s press release, described as ‘nauseating‘.
Maia Szalavitz, resident felinology wonk at TIME has written
an informative piece focusing on FIV, the technique and the prognosis for future research. Maia points out these are not the first UV sensitive cats ever produced, and passes on the reassurances of the human experimenter Dr. Eric Poeschla:

Three kittens, two males and one female, were born. “The kittens are completely normal — frisky, happy, healthy and interactive,” says Poeschla, adding that they seem completely unfazed by their ability to glow.

Meee-ouch! meanwhile reports that

after 22 attempts, the first cat to successfully have its DNA altered, bore a litter of 5 kittens, 3 survived and 2 went on to have litters of their own, carrying on the modified DNA. All cats were able to fight the FIV virus better than that of a normal domestic cat.

No word as to what happened to the 22 ‘unsuccessful’ cats or whether the humans infected them with FIV too. It’s interesting how the reports focussed on the florescence of the cats, rather than their FIV infection. Is it possible to use cats found and diagnosed with FIV, instead of infecting healthy cats with the virus? Too expensive to control the variables perhaps?

The only fly in the ointment as it were comes from the Dolly the Sheep people, who are quoted as suggesting, bizarrely, that feline test subjects may be less suitable than ‘more common’ lab animals like rats or mice. Siouxie has no comment as to these creatures lot, but suggests no animals are no substitute for human experience in human disease.
As for FIV+ catkind, if some can be treated they should – if they are made to glow under UV light in the process so be it, but this should not be forced on any cat.

Toxoplasmosis gondii updateLast time it was promised this blog would report on the risks associated with T. gondii. The brain-altering parasite with cats as its primary host may have first evolved in either Africa (like the tabby cat) or South America.

The issue of prevention raises a dilemma for those cats interested in a raw diet, since raw meat is one of the main risks of toxoplasmosis.

Siouxie’s diet is now at least 87 per cent meat, consisting of around 65% canned meat, 35% dry biscuits (which are 96 percent meat and mere 4% grain). This is supplemented with bits of cooked fresh meat, crushed eggshell (boiled first) and membrane, and the occasional cream or cheese crumb. No raw meat as yet, as far as anyone is aware.

On this issue, certainly for humans raw untrusted untested meat is the main risk here, but cats are evolved to eat raw meat, and it is widely assumed amongst raw cat food advocates that cats fed on a raw diet are, in the long run, healthier, happier and longer living cats. Moreover, “odd as it may seem, a healthy cat that tests positive is probably safer than a cat that tests negative”.

A theme which constantly emerges is that cats often get the blame for Toxoplasmosis, being the definite host, while people are far more likely to catch it from undercooked meat. An infected cat can only pass it on for two weeks, and is unlikely to do so anyway since the cat will clean the oocytes from it’s fur. There is an increased severity risk for pregnant woman – and their embryonic human child – from T. gondii for those two weeks, and this risk is well advised to be guarded against. The only real risk would appear to be from humans cleaning the cat’s toilet – but for a roaming, or garden cat, a dedicated patch in the garden would be the obvious way to avoid cleaning the litter tray, any subsequent gardening requiring a quarantine and heavy mulch time.

Despite simple ways to avoid infection, the symbiote is being used as a reason to advise people not to allow cats to roam freely, or to eat raw meat. Furthermore, it seems the effects on humans have been overstated.

Siouxie’s advice: don’t panic!


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