Mousetrap? Cats use chemical warfare against mice to control them

After the Road-Runner and Coyote race, perhaps, the next most popular pairing is the Cat-and-Mouse chase. Enshrined in idioms and the classic ‘Tom and Jerry’, scientists reveal a new twist to this epic battle: cats use chemical warfare to control mice. Sounds almost diabolical! The study – which was presented at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual meeting in Prague – discovered that when very young mice are exposed to a chemical in cat urine, they were less likely to avoid the scent of cats later in life.

Dr Vera Voznessenskaya explained that mice have a physiological response to this cat-specific compound. Chemical-sensing mouse neurons in the mouse’s brain pick up the scent, triggering a reaction which includes an increase in the levels of stress hormones. ‘It’s something that has existed in cats and mice for thousands of years,’ said Dr Voznessenskaya.

The researchers, from the AN Severtov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow, had previously found that a compound titled ‘felinine’ – causes pregnant mice to abort.

The research found that baby mice exposed to the compound during a ‘critical period’ in their development would, as adults, react quite differently to their arch enemy’s smell. The team exposed one-month-old mice to the chemical over two weeks. When they were tested later for their reaction, they were much less likely to flee the same scent. ‘Their physical sensitivity [to the chemical] was actually actually much higher,’ Dr Voznessenskaya explained. ‘More of their receptors detect the compound and they produce higher levels of stress hormone.’

Despite this though, mice raised around the unmistakable scent of cat pee are less inclined to show signs of fear, or to flee when they sniff it out. ‘You get a higher response, but less behaviour,’ said Dr Voznessenskaya, ‘and habituating like this is probably useful for the mice; they can’t run away, because they need to live around humans and food. And cats also live around humans.’ As for the cats: ‘They seem to be able to keep the number of mice around that they need,’ she added.

While it’s fascinating new information, I can’t help but feel cats love their play buddies. They wouldn’t have as much as fun without their fluffy mouse. Pictures of cats bonding with mice are rampant on social media and come on, if Tom really wanted to eat Jerry, he would have caught him up till now! The chase is just a clever ruse to keep us fooled. In actuality: they love having the other around!

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