Search :
Kittens at Play

– Paul Karr, Kathleen Cason contributed to this story


Playful kittens: pawing one another, rolling around on the floor, scampering around the room. You could just watch them for hours.

In fact, that’s just what Nancy Gerstenfeld did — which is how she learned that much of what scientists thought about kitten behavior may not be true at all.

Gerstenfeld, a doctoral student in the University of Georgia’s biopsychology program, spent an entire year studying four litters of kittens at the Croshka Siberian Cattery in Winder, Ga., testing hypotheses for her master’s thesis on kitten behavior.

She spent hundreds of hours videotaping the kittens at rest and play during the first eight weeks of their lives, then hundreds more reviewing the tapes and categorizing the play behavior of nine females and seven males. Then she analyzed the enormous amount of data for patterns.

The only preconceived notion that actually held up to scrutiny was a hypothesis that kittens — of both sexes — play more actively as they age from two weeks to eight weeks. Otherwise, it was back to the drawing board for animal behaviorists.

For example, several previously published studies had reported that male kittens wrestle, paw and otherwise play more aggressively than females of the same breed. But Gerstenfeld found no significant differences between males and females in either the kinds or quantity of play.

Doctoral student Nancy Gerstenfeld’s research on kittens may well alter many long held beliefs about animal behavior.

“People just assume that animals are similar to humans in terms of their gender differences, but they’re not necessarily,” Gerstenfeld said. “There actually haven’t been that many studies done on kittens, and those that were done were mainly done in the 1970s. And some of those have problems of design or statistical analysis.”

Sharon Crowell–Davis, an expert in the young field of applied animal behavior and director of the UGA clinical animal behavior program — a partnership of the College of Veterinary Medicine and the psychology department — said her student’s work will cause more scrutiny of long-held beliefs about animal behavior.

“I’m not really surprised by her findings,” Crowell–Davis said. “In a lot of ways, male and female kittens face the same challenges. They each hunt, they each stand up to other cats in a colony situation.”

Gerstenfeld’s work also was documented by a National Geographic Explorer video crew for a future program. Meanwhile, Gerstenfeld, who is considering a career as an animal behavior consultant, has moved on to a fresh research subject. She has already videotaped panda behavior at Zoo Atlanta and has been studying the behaviors of llamas at a Watkinsville, Ga., breeding facility.

Studying llama behavior is a whole different world from kittens, according to Gerstenfeld.

“Kittens are small and move around a lot so I had to use videotapes to capture play behavior down to one one-hundredth of a second,” she said. “Llamas stand around a lot so I watch and record observations live.”

By studying which llamas prefer to hang out together, the herd’s pecking order, and aggressive behavior, she is finding that the llamas’ reputation for being mean is not holding up. Preliminary findings show most llama fights have to do with food or issues over rank.

“In a year and a half, I’ve never seen the males fight,” Gerstenfeld said. “Last summer, the herd’s 20–year–old alpha female was sick and eventually died. There was more fighting then, probably over pecking order.”

To find out how llama “friendships” affect aggression, her next experiments will involve putting selected pairs of llamas in a stall to see “who eats and who spits.” Like her kitten research, her llama studies will shed new light on animal relationships and behavior.

For more information, contact



Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
For comments or for information please e-mail the editor:
To contact the webmaster please email: