Last week, a story about Kaeden, who did his school science project on whether cat butts touch the surfaces of your home, showed up in my Facebook feed. I was immediately (1) laughing (2) a little jealous I didn’t think of the research question myself and (3) super impressed with this scientific endeavor which addressed a question MANY PEOPLE WANT TO KNOW THE ANSWER TO!! I wanted to find out more.
Well, I reached out to Kaeden’s mom Kerry, and it turns out she’s amazing too! She earned her PhD studying cat behavior, and has an impressive background in cat rescue! I was so grateful that they agreed to meet with me for an interview (apparently Kaeden turned down some pretty big interviews, so now I feel really honored) and we had a lot of fun chatting about cats and science.
Tell me a little bit about your research subjects: Taco and Maya.
Kaeden: Taco is really good, he’s a bit of a wild kitten, he’s only about nine or 10 months. He’s a wild man… he likes to run into walls face forward and chew on wood.
I have three teenage cats myself, so I can relate. And Maya is quite a bit older, right?
Kaeden: Yeah, she’s a calm cat. She can be scared of a lot of things.
Kerry: So she’s about 13, going to be 14 years old this year, and she was found as a feral, so she’s really comfortable with us, but if somebody knocks on the door, you would never know that we have her. Taco is the opposite, he is the welcoming committee.
It looks like from your study that both cats were already trained to do a few basic tricks before you did your project. What motivated you to train your cats?
Kerry: I think that was really just me – in the mornings I get the treats out, whenever it hits me I grab the treats and we do a few things. I had a lot of senior cats that have passed away in the last few years because they all were between the ages of 15 and 21, and Maya is the last one of that bunch. They were all trained to sit, speak, high five, spin, and it’s all positive reinforcement, guiding and shaping the behavior. Kaeden thinks it’s cool because he can high five them and stuff.
Kaeden, so you and Maya kind of grew up together!
Kerry: I think Maya hid from you during the toddler years, but now she’s really sweet.
Tell me about how you came up with your research question.
Kaeden: So on Facebook, there was this meme of this cat’s butt hitting on all the surfaces in the home, so we thought it’d be interesting to do a project on it.
Oh, I don’t think I’ve seen that!
(Turns out this is a graphic by artist Adam Ellis, you can check him out and support his work and you can view the meme in question here)
Kerry: And it’s normally animated, their booties are touching the surfaces…I was like…”oh!!” We got Taco a few months ago, he was in the yard meowing. I had heard him the night before, but I thought, it’s cool mama will come get him, I’m not going to get in the way of things… the next day, he was still out there hollering so we of course got him.
We brought him in and my husband, he was kind of funny about Taco being on some of our nicer furniture. Because, for the most part Maya kind of stays to herself, but Taco’s a kitten and he was everywhere, and so my husband’s kind of “ehhhh.” Whenever I would see Taco pop a squat I was like is his butthole really touching? Since then Taco and my husband have become quite good friends.
So there was this meme and then obviously this kind of hygienic concern, which I think probably a lot of cat owners are thinking. At my house, the cats are kind of allowed anywhere but…
Kerry: Our cats are really allowed everywhere except the kitchen counter. But Taco was getting on everything, I mean he was on the coffee table, the dining table. It’s what cats do.
I think some people, maybe are a little more sensitive about hygiene or cleanliness and think, “they must be dirty” so it was good that you helped answer this question. Tell me a little bit about the process of doing the experiment. I know there was some lipstick involved and it sounds like your cats are pretty cooperative, but just walk me through what you did.
Kaeden: Taco was kind of cooperative because he smelled the treats!
(More details from Kerry’s original Facebook post: We had a lot of fun with this! As a disclaimer, no cats were harmed in the process of this science project. Non-toxic lipstick was applied to their bum-bums, they were then given a series of commands (sit, wait, lie down, and jump up. Side note: Both cats have been trained since kittenhood with a variety of commands, they also know how to high-five, spin around, and speak.), they were compensated with lots of praise, pets, and their favorite treats, and the lipstick was removed with a baby wipe once we collected our data in just under 10 minutes.)
Did you test them both on the same day?
It looks like you had pieces of paper on different surfaces and then you asked them to sit on them?
Okay, and how did you choose the color of lipstick?
Kerry: Taco got red and Maya got pink. I had to make sure it would smear – because you know you buy lipstick these days and they’ve got that stuff that stays on for 10 hours. We did not want that.
And where’s the lipstick now?
Kerry: In the trash. A lot of people keep asking about the lipstick.
Kaeden: We did not want to use that again.
Okay, so you put the lipstick on the cat, you put the pieces of paper down and then tried to get them to sit where you want them to?
Kerry: We went in and prepped the room, and then we called the cats to the room, we just had to shake the treat jar and they came on in. I did the honors of putting the lipstick on.
Kaeden: We brought them over to a cat tree and then told them to sit. Then they would sit down and then we did different poses with them, we had them sit and we had them lay down. Then we had them sit and lay down on the table, and the carpet, and tile floor.
Kerry: So we did a hard and soft surface with each of them, and then we also we put a white sheet on the bed so that way if they left a print, it was just on the sheet, not on the comforter.
That was probably a good plan.
Kerry: We patted the bed, they jumped on it and we asked them to sit, and we looked to see if there was a mark or not.
So what were the results?
(Kaeden brings over his research poster)
Is that an actual piece of paper from the study on the poster?
Kerry: Yeah, this was the actual one that they were sitting on.
(Note: the piece of paper is blank! No lipstick smudge!)
Kaeden: Basically since Maya has medium hair, her butt barely touched any surface. Since Taco has short hair he touched a lot of surfaces with his butt.
Kerry: He left a little bit of a smear but to be completely honest, if you look in the video and you see where Taco gets up from the nightstand he turns around — I covered the butthole in its entirety, but also, if you look to the side there’s a little streak where he was moving when I put it on. So it’s possibly a fault on my part that the lipstick even got on there — so there’s a chance that even a short haired cat on the soft surface doesn’t really touch the sheet or the pillow. Across the board hard surfaces were totally safe, soft surfaces not so much. If there’s an unmade bed, or a really fluffy pillow you probably have a chance there might be a little contact.
So Kaeden, will you let Taco sleep on your bed now?
Kaeden: Oh, I always have.
It seems like the soft fabric just gives their butt the opportunity to make more contact — I didn’t know if your opinions had changed due to your results. So it didn’t dissuade you from letting them snuggle on the bed?
Kerry: Not at all. I think it actually brought my husband a little bit of comfort.
It seems like Maya had a little protection from that extra butt fluff?
Do you think there might be any other factors that might have influenced the results? You’ve got two different sexes of cats. Are they different weights or sizes?
Kaeden: Taco is younger. They’re about the same weight.
Kerry: They’re both fixed. Maya’s fur is really dense so we did get really dense medium fur with her, but we didn’t have a long haired cat.
So obviously future research projects.
Kerry: Yes absolutely. I will say, we had a lot of people message us and send us pictures of their hairless cats and they said yes for a fact hairless cats leave little butt-pucker marks on stuff like a lip print you know when you kiss. Hairless cats for sure are touching.
This leads to the big question which is about the response to this project. So, Kerry, you posted this to your Facebook, and somehow I saw it. And I saw there was a radio story, so tell me what’s happened since you posted the result.
Kerry: It’s been insane. He did it on Monday, I don’t think I posted it until Saturday. I was like, should I really post this? Are people going to respond like “eww that’s nasty – you just put lipstick on your cats!” or am I going to have the animal rights activists knocking on my door… because I used to be one of those folks. But I was like what the heck, this is all in good fun, you know, nobody was hurt, it literally took 10 minutes. We had everything set up, called them in, gave them some treats, did some tricks and they were out of there, so not a big deal.
So I posted it and I shared it only in one group. Now there’s a group on Facebook called “show me the botthorle (supposed to be the butthole but spelled differently) and it’s nothing but cat butts. So I posted it on that, yes, I would be in that group. That’s where it started gaining momentum. And it was covered on the radio, on the Elvis & Duran morning show, but he was not okay with being on live radio. I think you’re the only one that’s talked to him. We’ve had a lot of requests for radio interviews, to call in in the morning on the talk shows and he’s like, oh no I don’t want to be a live radio show.
Kerry: And we did have a wonderful lady message us out of Maryland, she was the Executive Director of a science and technology museum. And she gifted us a family membership for free admission to all these museums for a year, which is really awesome since we homeschool. We can travel some next year, and incorporate that into our studies.
How do you feel about it Kaeden?
Kaeden: I think it’s really cool how the poster got that popular on Facebook and all these other social media platforms.
Have people offered to collect data as well to contribute? Because you might be able to get a lot more data.
Kerry: One lady sent a really good picture of her TV stand and there was dust all over it. Her cat came in and sat in the dust. After they walked off, you can clearly see the haunches, and the feet and the tail. And you can see right where the butthole would be, the dust was undisturbed. You would think that the area around the butthole might be a little moist so obviously if it touched, it was going to grab that dust and it did not.
I think you really tapped into everyone’s natural curiosity about their cats. I’m a big fan of citizen science and people getting interested in science through their cats. I really love highlighting research that DOES answer questions that people want to know about their cats and this one’s also very humorous so I think that increases it’s appeal. Are you interested in science? Did your mom’s background in animal behavior have an impact?
Kaeden: Definitely since I grew up with cats, cats are kinda a thing for me. When it comes to science I don’t only do cats but mostly it’s probably going to be cats if I do a science project.
Kerry: If he writes a paper, it’s on cats, if he does a project it’s probably on cats! He’s grown up with just being surrounded by it, I founded a nonprofit called It’s Meow or Never maybe 17 years ago now, and so we specialize in trap neuter return (TNR) with ferals, so he’s grown up just out there trapping cats, taking them to the vet, dropping them off, releasing them. We also ran a pet food bank, so he would ride around with me, we would deliver pet food to low-income families and at one point I drove the neuter commuter and transported pets to and from the vet. So this is all he knows.
That’s amazing. Is the organization still going?
Kerry: Yes, it’s based out of Tallahassee. They’ve grown significantly – when I started it, I was just the one man band doing it all. And it just grew and grew and now it’s probably 20 or 30 members now.
So you basically grew up in a house of cat people and you are a cat person. Do you have other ideas of future projects or questions you have about cats or questions do you think people have about cats.
Kaeden: Not yet, I know there’s some questions about cats but I don’t know for 100% sure if people have done studies about them yet.
When’s your next science project due?
Kaeden: Hopefully not till next year. I finished the school year already.
Kerry: Officially on summer break!
Congrats!! So Kerry tell me briefly about your research background.
Kerry: My dissertation was on litter box problems! I am the queen of litter box problems.
I still I have a lot of people that just get referred to me from Lord only knows where, and if I have time I’ll give them a call. I’ll walk them through, ask them some questions first to find out what their litter box situation is really like and then guide them from there, different steps to do. What I found to be most true is cats like something that is closest to what they would have in their natural environment. We use those big hundred-gallon storage bins for a litter box. They like wide spaces, they don’t want it covered. A lot of times, people have a tiny little box cramped next to a toilet with a hood on it, and you know and then they’ve got five or six cats and one box. I try to keep our cat’s environment as natural as possible, they have a big sunroom and it’s got lots of windows and we’ve got cat trees and bird feeders.
Kaeden do you have anything else that you would like people to know about your study or how you feel about cats?
Kaeden: I mean if we do future project it will definitely be based on cats.
Kerry: I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to beat this one.
I hope that you have an exciting future in cat studies. You’re being guided by the best person to do so! I’m just so impressed with both of you! I was so excited to talk to you both, I feel like a total dork.
Kerry: It was so much fun! I’m meeting somebody on the other side of the continent and we have a lot in common!
Thank you to Kaeden and Kerry for taking the time to talk to me! You can support It’s Meow or Never by visiting this link!!