Monday, December 20, 2010

Animal emotions, citizen science and the promotion of welfare

There's a lot of interest in the cognition of dogs and whether they've evolved to be especially capable of recognising human signals and facial expressions. Cats have been rather left out of this, so it's interesting to find two projects which are almost mirror images of the dog ones — not how good cats are at reading human behaviour, but how well humans can interpret cats.

The tagpuss project at the University of Lincoln aims to investigate the feasibility of studying animal emotions using "citizen science".
Citizen science is a term that describes a partnership between ordinary citizens and scientists working together in real scientific studies. This partnership means we can create large research teams with networks of volunteers who have little training in the area of research to peform tasks such as observation, measurement and computation.
In the case of tagpuss, the volunteers are shown random images of cats and asked to add tags which describe the cats' emotions. Once the image is tagged the system reveals a word cloud showing which tags have been selected by other participants.

It's evident that there's generally a fair degree of agreement, even if it's not perfect — it might be enlightening to compare agreement over tagging images of human emotions (for instance is this person terrified, angry, shocked? )

This can have practical implications for the way we view and look after cats. The extremely rich and subtle social and emotional signals they display help to dispel the idea that they are rather simple unsocial animals. Finding out more about our ability to interpret cats' emotional signals can also help to improve assessment of individual cats—as in the ASPCA "Is that cat feral" study which is intended to help shelters decide which cats are suitable for adoption as domestic pets and which would be happier if they were simply neutered and released back to their original location.

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