Cat Fur Can Identify Criminals

One of the best home security systems requires no monthly contracts or electrical wiring and may go unnoticed by crooks. Thanks to innovative new research, cat fur is helping to identify and convict miscreants, from robbers to murderers. As a result, your purring lap kitty could one day save your belongings -- and maybe even your life.

Inspiration From TV Crime Shows
Dr. Leslie Lyons, one of the world’s leading experts on cat genetics, pioneered the research. She enjoys watching certain television crime programs. “I’m a big fan of ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,’” she says, which included two episodes where cat fur was part of the evidence. Lyons, based at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, was already compiling information on cat DNA when a lightbulb moment struck her.

Lyons and her colleagues then created a DNA database that forensic science experts can use to help identify the source of cat fur. “Because cats incessantly groom, cat fur may have nucleated cells, not only in the hair bulb, but also as epithelial cells on the hair shaft deposited during the grooming process, thereby generally providing material for DNA profiling,” Lyons and her team report in the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics. So each strand of fur shed by your cat might contain DNA-rich cells at the root end or even DNA-containing skin cells stuck to the hair shaft itself.

How Cat Fur Catches Criminals

Lyons, who shares her household with four cats, suggests that a perpetrator might not be able to control one detail, if breaking into your house. “I can’t come out of my house without cat fur on me,” she says, adding that the same can happen to unwanted visitors. Anyone who enters a house where a cat resides leaves with one or more cat hairs stuck to his (OK?) body, clothing, bags and shoes.

If the criminal is later detained for questioning, or is caught pulling a similar stunt, the cat fur might then go to a lab for analysis. Thanks to the new DNA database, researchers can usually tell what general region and population the cat fur originated from. While the data isn’t firm enough to say something like, “This fur came from Miss Fluffy, a calico at X Street in Kansas,” it can help to eliminate individual criminals from the list of possibilities, strengthen existing evidence and identify probable suspects.

Cats Have Already Put Criminals Behind Bars

One of the most publicized cases, Beamish v. Her Majesty’s Court, P.E.I., involved a Canadian murder. “Investigators linked the perpetrator to the crime scene by STR (a certain type of DNA) identification of a single cat hair found in the pocket of a discarded jacket,” report Lyons and her team.

Consider Having Your Own Cat’s DNA Tested
If you keep your cat’s genetic information on file, that can help facilitate any forensics process, should a crime ever take place in your home. DNA tests also can:

  • confirm your cat’s lineage
  • provide additional information about your cat’s family history
  • offer info about your cat’s coat type and color
  • detect certain inherited diseases

Lyons suggests breeders of cats might consider such testing. Persians, for example, can be born with genetic defects that may cause blindness or kidney disease. The DNA information might even one day help to cure similar problems in humans, since both humans and cats are mammals and sometimes suffer from related disorders.

Above all, cats are also “good to have on your lap and just lower your blood pressure,” says Lyons. “They’re good all the way around.”

The ‘Animal Nanny’ Cat Sitter Cares for Lonely Cats

The Animal Nanny, Marna Stein, is a registered veterinary technician who works in San Francisco and represents a new kind of pet sitter -- one who provides more personal and specialized services for your cat. Would you and your cat benefit from having such a nanny cat sitter? You might be surprised by the tasks Stein and other super-sitters can handle.

Cat Sitter Supreme

With a cat nanny service, expect the usual pet sitter perks, only with a twist. For example, Stein and her colleagues will feed and play with your cat, but for lonely or otherwise needy felines, they can stay overnight at your home, too.

“Really social cats get lonely and are used to their regular routine with their owners,” explains Stein. “They will come sleep in the bed and curl up beside the sitter, who can help to ensure the cat maintains its usual habits.” Since she also has a medical background, including serving as a hospital manager for two veterinary clinics, Stein can administer medicines and provide extra support, even at night, for aged and ailing felines.

We all know about dog walks, but some cats also like to take an outdoor stroll on a leash. One of Stein’s regular cat clients must have its daily walk in the owner’s courtyard. “It’s often amusing because the cat follows the same routine of inspecting the perimeter and certain favorite spots,” she says.

Why Hire a Nanny Cat Sitter?

In addition to providing expected home comforts, a more specialized pet sitter can be a lifesaver. “One cat got caught underneath a bed box spring, and it’s fairly common for cats to lock themselves in closets,” says Stein. She has figured out how to foil this: by placing a clothes hanger on the inside door to prevent feline Houdinis from getting trapped.

An even more serious problem is when a cat stops eating for a few days, out of possible anxiety, depression or confusion over the changed routine. “Cats can get feline hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease, and it can come on suddenly,” says Stein. “Even young, healthy animals can develop health problems, as anything can happen in a 24-hour period.” A good cat sitter would contact you and make necessary arrangements, such as transporting the animal to its veterinarian. Stein offers “pet taxi” services even outside of emergencies, since most cab companies won’t drive animals.

Top Questions to Ask Cat Sitters

Whether you are seeking a pet sitter for daily duties or for temporary vacation-time help, consider asking the following questions during initial discussions:

1. Are you insured?

Liability insurance will protect you from financial loss in the rare event that an accident should occur while you’re gone. “Any responsible professional business should carry liability insurance,” says Stein.

2. What kind of special training do you have?

It helps to have a sitter who has prior veterinary training and has taken pet first-aid and CPR classes.

3. Are you a member of Pet Sitters International or the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters?

These are the two major U.S. associations for pet sitters. (If you don’t have a pet sitter in mind, you can also contact them for referrals.)

During first conversations, also inquire about forms of payment, hours of service, whether your pet sitter needs a key (Stein keeps keys on file for regular customers) and what you can expect when you return home. The Animal Nanny leaves behind a detailed note reporting what happened during her stay.

The Connection Between Nanny and Cat

Just as Mary Poppins had to win over her children, your pet sitter nanny may need time to bond with your cat. “Cats tend to be wary in general,” says Stein. “Even with good care, it sometimes takes a couple of days before they come out and say ‘hi’.” But the best nannies leave their cats craving more when they leave. One of Stein’s clients reported that her cat, Bella, looked for her beloved cat sitter for a while at the front door after the Animal Nanny’s work was done.

The Reasoning for Indoor Cats

As a veterinary technician, Nancy Peterson has seen her share of hard-luck cases. But one cat in particular got to her.

“Some students found a cat that was hit by a car,” says Peterson. “He had a broken jaw, cuts all over his body and no owner that we knew of. It was so sad. He may have been euthanized had he been brought to another clinic. But we did surgery on him and brought him back to good health.” Peterson decided to adopt him, naming him Stu -- short for students’ cat.

Outdoor Cat vs. Indoor Cat
Stu’s lucky tale isn’t just a lesson about making your cat wear identification. Peterson, who is now the cat programs manager at the Humane Society of the United States, believes it’s a cautionary story for the 66 percent of cat owners (according to a University of Michigan report) who say they let their cats go outside.

“It really is a myth that cats have to go out to be happy,” says Peterson. “And unfortunately, the belief that cats can fend for themselves really harms cats. People just let them roam and think they will take care of themselves, when they can’t. They depend on people.”

Don’t Compromise the Safety of Your Cat
You may enjoy the idea that your cat goes out to fulfill an innate hunting desire. But Peterson says that outdoor roaming simply puts your cat in danger. “Cats that live outdoors will typically have a shorter life,” he explains. “We’ve domesticated cats: They can’t fend for themselves. They’re no match for a speeding car.”

Outside, cats are also pitted against toxins. “It doesn’t take too many drops of antifreeze licked off their paws to cause permanent kidney damage or death,” cautions Peterson. Dogs and even cruel people can also harm your outdoor cat. Roaming felines are additionally exposed to other cats, and therefore cat health problems. Diseases like feline leukemia virus, feline immunodeficiency virus, and rabies can easily spread.

Since cats are predatory by nature, they themselves are a danger to other wildlife. After a four-year study of cat predation, a University of Wisconsin report estimated that rural cats kill 39 million birds annually.

Tips for a Happy Indoor Cat
Peterson admits that having cats confined indoors does put the onus on you to keep them entertained. “It requires more work to provide the stimulation that the cat needs so he doesn’t get bored and start making up his own activities, which you may not appreciate,” she says.

She recommends these simple items, which you may already have in place:

  • Window perches To simulate outdoor lounging, place a perch or cat bed at the base of a window that receives ample sunlight.
  • Cat toys To mimic your cat’s tendency to run after leaves or mice, make available a few wand toys or windup toys, which your cat can chase.
  • Cat tree Rather than let your cat get stuck in a real tree, provide a nice floor-to-ceiling cat tree for danger-free climbing.
  • Outdoor enclosures There are many styles of special outdoor “cat runs” that you can find by searching online. Never leave your cat in an outdoor enclosure unattended, since it can tear its way through if your cat is aggressive.

Additional Indoor Cat Safety Tip
Even if you never let your cat out, Peterson suggests that you still make sure your cat always wears a collar. Cats are sneaky and will try to escape. A collar gives you a better chance of being reunited, but it can’t fully protect your cat.

“Let’s say you let him out every day at 3 o’clock, and he always comes home at 5 o’clock,” she says. “The one day he doesn’t come home at 5, chances are he’s injured or trapped somewhere. You don’t want that to happen to you.”

Erase Your Cat’s Carbon Footprint

Chances are, you use energy-efficient lighting in your home, and you unplug your appliances. If you follow these and other green lifestyle guidelines, your carbon footprint -- the amount of carbon dioxide emissions created by your activities -- is likely at a minimum. But have you thought about your cat’s impact on the environment?

Why Your Cat’s Carbon Footprint Matters
According to lifelong environmentalist Holly Tse, “a 2007 survey by the American Veterinary Association states that there are over 80 million cats in American households.” Tse, who blogs about green living ideas for felines at GreenLittleCat.com, adds, “Reducing one cat’s carbon footprint is helpful, but 80 million cats collectively could make an enormous difference!”

Since plenty of eco-friendly cat products are now on the market, it’s clear that many pet owners want to include their cats in their green lifestyle. Here’s how you can “green” every area of your cat’s life:

  • Cat litter “Clay going to a landfill is terribly detrimental for the environment,” says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinarian, director of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic and author of The Cat Who Cried for Help. The next time you go to the supermarket, consider buying a litter that’s made from natural or recycled materials.
  • Cat bedding Check the tags to make sure your cat’s bedding consists of natural, organic cotton or hemp. “Hemp is durable and natural -- it basically lasts forever,” says Dodman.
  • Cat carriers Carriers made from materials like recycled plastic are better for the planet and your cat. Advises Tse: “Petmate makes a kennel that is made from 25 percent recycled materials.” Other manufacturers offer carriers made out of hemp and even recycled water bottles.
  • Cat toys It’s easy and fun to make your own cat toys. For example, try making the following toys out of a toilet paper roll:

    1.  “Put treats inside it, close its sides with sticky tape, poke a few holes and toss it to your cat,” suggests Dodman. “You just used what was going to be waste.”

    2.  “Press it flat and cut it into 1/4-inch rings. Pop the rings back into shape and toss into the air for your cat to catch,” offers Tse.
  • Cat treats Eco-friendly bites are the most delectable for your cat. Look for organic catnip -- or better yet, grow your own. Visit OnlyNaturalPet.com or you local pet store for a Grow Your Own Catnip Plant kit.
  • Cleaners If you clean your home with a variety of chemical-based products, it’s time to rethink your cleaning methods. Harsh chemicals are bad for the environment and are a turnoff to your cat. They can also be disastrous for its health. “Over time, our pets develop a much higher concentration of toxic chemicals in their systems than humans do,” says Tse. “Since [your cat] spends so much time grooming itself, it may ingest the chemicals.”For a toxin-free home environment, try enzyme-based products. “Enzymes are biomolecules that digest the organic odor-causing substances found in cat urine,” explains Tse. Dodman has an even simpler solution: “There is nothing you need to clean in a house that you can’t clean with vinegar and baking soda.”

Embrace the Green Mindset
When it comes to your cat’s needs, always mind the three R’s: Instead of buying brand-new supplies, reduce waste by reusing and recycling. Sign up at freecycle.org, where you can swap items locally with others, offering up what you don’t want and reusing useful items that others don’t need.

Finally, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to spay or neuter your cat. “A female cat and her offspring can make 42,000 cats in seven years,” says Dodman. “The planet is already teeming with one life form [humans], so you don’t want a surplus of carbon footprints.”

By taking these green steps, you’ll help your cat veer off the trail of harmful carbon footprints and follow the path to saving our planet.

Cat Product Trends for 2010

Fat cats now have a new incentive to exercise: They can work for their kibble. Talk to Me Pet Products has developed the new Talk to Me Rubber Treatball, which owners can use to entice their pets to bat around the ball and chase it for dry food. The ball also plays a 12-second recorded message from you every time kitty swats the toy. "A lot of people have fun with this," says Mike Sachtleben, the company's sales manager. "They say things like, 'Get your ball' or 'I love you.'"

The balls, which are priced from $13.99 to $17.99, are among thousands of pet products that will be featured at the American Pet Product Association's (APPA) Global Pet Expo, March 25-27 in Orlando, Fla. The 2010 show features 750 exhibitors. It is not open to the public, but professional buyers from around the world attend.

Pet Product Spending on the Rise
Although fallout from the worldwide recession continues, the APPA says spending on pet products and services has been on the rise. Many of the purchases come from owners buying “products that allow us to keep our pets well taken care of in spite of our more frantic personal lives,” says APPA President Bob Vetere. "High-tech items like timed feeding, watering devices, electric fences, automatic litter box cleaners and the like allow us to work and keep our pets well."

Here are three cat products you may want to consider bringing into your home:

1.  "Space-age" self-warming bed Now that heated seats are standard in most new cars, it's only natural that your cat should have a heated cushion of its own. Simple Solution's Self-Warming Thermal Cat Cushion deploys a "space-age material" that reflects a kitty's body heat back to the animal. With a plush fur pad cover, the thermal qualities help soothe a cat's aching bones. It’s perfect for the aged, infirm or just plain spoiled cat. It’s machine-washable too.

2.  Stress-relief gel Help your cat survive thunderstorms and other nerve-racking events. Vet's Best now makes Comfort Calm Gel with a mix of valerian root -- which the ancient Greeks used to help calm nerves and sleeplessness -- and tryptophan, a well-known calming ingredient. The line of natural products, developed by Dr. Dawn Curie Thomas, a veterinarian, is billed as a healthy way to help care for your cat. According to Thomas, Comfort Calm Gel is a soothing, calming remedy that eases the feline stress of travel, big events and loud noises.

3.  Air purifier Cat allergies are reportedly on the rise. Unlike humans who tend to get runny noses and scratchy throats during allergy season, cat reactions tend to manifest themselves in itchy skin. Some pets scratch so much that they develop sores. But Annette and Mike Uda believe they’ve found a solution for their allergy-afflicted cat, Tasha.

Uda, who works in the indoor air quality control industry, and his wife use powerful, medical-grade ultraviolet light technology and allergen filters to turn homes and professional offices like theirs into safe places for pets. PetAirapy makes portable and stationary heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems starting at $395. "I think this is going to be a major breakthrough in the industry," says Annette. "There's nothing out there right now to treat pet allergies except to give them medicine."

The fact that we spend more on such pet products these days is a continuation of efforts to "humanize" our pets. Vetere explains, "When we have a pet we can come home to who loves us unconditionally, never complains or has a bad thing to say, we want to tell them thank you.” You can thank your own cat with one of the mentioned products, which will be in pet stores soon, following the Global Pet Expo.