Julia Cohen has always known she wanted to work with cats. As a toddler, she wished she had a cat and even believed she WAS a cat! She spent summers as a young person with her grandparents in a small Eastern European country with an abundance of stray cats and kittens. Seeing so many of them succumb to sickness inspired her to want to become a veterinarian, a path that is currently pursuing. While on this path, she has also fostered kittens and currently is involved in cat research. In fact, participating in one of her studies on the weaning of kittens is how I came to know Julia.
ALLISON: What has been your favorite way to work with cats?
JULIA: Fostering has definitely been my favorite way to work with cats and kittens! I started fostering kittens when I was 13 years old, and it’s a hobby and passion that brings me so much joy. I absolutely love having the opportunity to raise, socialize, and love a kitten until it can be placed in a forever home. Plus, seeing the delight on a new adopter’s face as they get ready to take their new kitten home is a huge bonus!
Now, as a veterinary student, I am involved with the Orphan Kitten Project (OKP) at UC Davis. I still foster kittens, but I also coordinate for them, arrange and occasionally provide their medical care, and help work out the logistics of their adoptions and any studies they may be enrolled in. In addition to that, I am one of OKP’s Events Coordinators, so I help organize and facilitate adoptions events for the kittens in our care. I love that I have the opportunity to bring our organization outside of our campus and into our community, and it’s so much fun talking to potential adopters and watching kittens go to their new homes.
ALLISON: What interests you about cats?
JULIA: It’s worth prefacing my answer to this question with a note that part of my love for cats can’t quite be explained: I have distinct memories of wishing I had a cat (and even believing I was a cat!) when I was just a toddler, even though I did not have any pets until I was older. Something has always drawn me to cats. Perhaps it’s their somewhat wild yet sociable nature and the wide variety of personalities they can have packed into their fuzzy little bodies!
My early interest in cats might be due to the fact that I grew up spending my summers with my grandparents in Moldova, a small Eastern European country with an abundance of stray cats and kittens. As much as I enjoyed playing with the kittens outside, it saddened me to see so many of them get sick and even die due to a lack of medical care, disease prevention, and basic spay and neuter protocols. I believe this is largely what inspired me to want to become a veterinarian in the first place, and I still hope that I can find a way to help minimize and heal the stray populations there someday. Now that I’m in veterinary school, I’m learning that cats are quite unique anatomically and medically, which makes them all the more intriguing!
Lastly, my love for cats has also been strengthened by all the times I’ve had to promote their wonderful qualities to people I’ve encountered who claim not to like them. There are so many common misconceptions about our feline friends, and I consider it a mission of mine to educate people about all the paw-sitive cat-tributes! I am happy to report that I’ve successfully “converted” some of these people into genuine cat lovers.
ALLISON: Why did you become a cat researcher?
JULIA: I’ve always enjoyed any opportunity to work with cats, and ever since college I’ve become more interested in scientific research. This summer I finally had an opportunity to combine the two, and that’s how it all began! While I’m still undecided with regard to whether I’ll pursue a career in research (clinical veterinary medicine is my goal right now), I am very fortunate to have opportunities to work on research projects as a student here at UC Davis. I am particularly grateful for the Students Training in Advanced Research (STAR) program and the Center for Companion Animal Health endowment fund at UC Davis, which have allowed me to carry out my research project this summer under the mentorship of two incredible scientists and feline enthusiasts: Dr. Karen Vernau and Dr. Mikel Delgado. Through my conversations with my mentors, I learned that there is a particular lack of research focusing on kitten health and welfare, and at that point I knew I wanted to come up with a project that would allow me to contribute to this area.
ALLISON: Tell me about your work in cat research.
JULIA: My work in cat research began in June of this year, with my project focusing on comparing the health and behavior of orphaned kittens versus mother-reared kittens during the weaning process. I became curious about kitten weaning after I fostered a couple of litters of kittens who had been weaned prematurely and had displayed abnormal behaviors such as suckling their littermates and their solid food. At times I felt a bit lost with regard to how I could make my foster kittens as happy and comfortable as possible, given that they were orphaned. Reflecting on those experiences inspired me to want to help make the process better for kittens and for their foster caregivers. With the help of my mentors, I was able to come up with a research project that would allow me to explore this life stage further.
ALLISON: How are these studies conducted?
JULIA: This study is being conducted as a daily survey from beginning to end of the weaning process. I’ve sent an interest form to local rescues and shelters in addition to other kitten fosters within my mentor’s network. When people sign up to participate, I send them a link to the survey along with details and instructions. Our survey asks a wide variety of questions about each kitten’s health, diet, behavior, and personality. When participants finish weaning their kittens, I also send them a final questionnaire assessing their experience as a foster caregiver during the weaning process. I think it’s just as important to understand how fosters feel during this period, because we are so dependent upon great kitten fosters to keep stray kitties off the streets and place them into loving homes.
ALLISON: Summarize what you learned from your research. How will the results be reported to the public?
JULIA: Because we are still in the data collection phase of our study, we have not been able to draw any conclusions regarding the health and behavior of weaning kittens. However, this experience has taught me so much with regard to scientific research, and especially observational research involving a survey. For one, I learned first-hand how a global pandemic can completely flip a project upside-down, and how researchers need to persevere and get creative in such complicated situations. Although our original plan involved a more systematic approach to the behavioral observations we wanted to collect, thereby eliminating some confounding factors, the remote alternative we came up with in the form of a survey has actually allowed us to collect a wider variety of information on a larger number of kittens. I am looking forward to seeing what the data shows and if there are any notable patterns or differences among our study groups. We are hoping to publish the results in a peer-reviewed journal once the study is completed.
ALLISON: How has your research helped you understand your own cats? Other cat owners?
JULIA: I’ve had a lot of fun thinking about the different behaviors that kittens may display during the weaning process, especially since I was fostering my own bottle babies as survey responses were coming in. Although I did not enter my kittens in the study in order to avoid potential bias, I certainly did pay more attention to their behaviors and personalities before, during, and after weaning. I also really enjoyed seeing so much positive feedback from participants. It is truly wonderful to see how dedicated and observant kitten fosters are! Perhaps it’s fair to say that kitten fosters make great targets for surveys since they love to talk about their work and share all that they can about their litters.
ALLISON: Why do you think there are so few researchers studying cats?
JULIA: Part of the reason there aren’t many researchers studying cats might be related to ethics and public perception: One of the guiding principles of animal research is to replace the use of animals with simpler models whenever possible. I imagine it can be difficult to get some projects approved if the subject of choice is a common and beloved pet such as a domestic cat. However, it may also be that cats tend to be more difficult to work with, given that they have a tendency to be more stressed or less cooperative under certain circumstances. Nevertheless, there is still so much that we can learn from cats, and perhaps someday we will see a greater appreciation for this within the scientific research community.
ALLISON: Anything else?
JULIA: Thank you so much for inviting me to do this interview. It was a great pleasure of mine, and I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences with your blog!