By Philip KieferIn the last several weeks, Katherine J. Wu, a science writer at the Atlantic, has written a lot about cats. Her run started in late August with a profile of vet dentists and the fact that while all cat-owners are supposed to brush their pets’ teeth, almost none of them do. (Wu is the exception; her cats, Calvin and Hobbes, who make cameos throughout her cat-beat reporting, get a scrub three times a week.) From there she looked at the mysterious purpose of purring, the physics that allows cats to twist in midair and theoretically survive hundred-foot-falls, and how her own cat allergy suddenly disappeared in adulthood.
What I found fascinating about the stories is not just that Wu has continued to pull scientific riddles out of something so everyday as housecats, but that she’s been able to do so in the absence of the usual bread-and-butter of science journalism: peer-reviewed research. The toothbrushing piece opens with a frank acknowledgment that she’s writing from the realm of vibes, rather than hard data: “Reliable stats are scarce, but informal surveys suggest that less than 5 percent of owners give their cats the dental scrub-a-dub-dub,” Wu writes, citing an online poll sponsored by the pet food company Royal Canin. (The same poll reported that a handful of cat owners brush their pets’ teeth multiple times a day.)
That ability to navigate preliminary, often contradictory evidence has been a feature of Wu’s COVID reporting, like a recent story on whether the flu and COVID shots should go in the same arm. “When I posed this puzzle to immunologists, vaccinologists, and pharmacists,” she wrote, “I got back a lot of hems and haws. For the millions of Americans who will be getting two-shot appointments by fall’s end, they told me, the choice really does come down to personal preference in the absence of clear data.” But that willingness to keep scratching at scientific murk also appears in stories she’s written on evolution and ecology, as in a yarn about the contested science on the evolution of the anus.
Wu joined the Atlantic in 2021 after working as a a science reporter at The New York Times. She has a PhD in microbiology and immunobiology from Harvard. She lives with two cats, named Calvin and Hobbes.
I asked Wu to talk more about how she has approached her cat-centered science reporting, but also how she thinks about finding a story in the face of thin evidence and how to balance feline reportage with covering the country’s patchwork public health infrastructure.
So maybe the place to start is: Have you been thinking of the cat science stories over the last couple of months as a series, or otherwise?
That was not at all calculated. I pitched one idea that went really well. Then I kept pitching cat stories because it seemed to be a surprisingly fruitful thing that readers seem interested in clicking on. But other people on our desk have written a lot about pets, namely Amanda Mull and Sarah Zhang.
Even the genesis of the first piece was not entirely me. I had offhandedly mentioned at one point that I brush my cats’ teeth three times a week. That absolutely shocked one of my colleagues, Marina Koren, who covers space. She told our editor, “I would love to read Katie on cat toothbrushing, because no one does this.” I was like, “Will anyone even click on a piece that’s just, ‘Oh, I do this thing to my cats that no one else does.’” But it turned out to be really, really, really fun. It was the kind of story that was quirky but has stakes, and people love weird cat reactions. So it turned into a regular palate cleanser for me.
Once you had cat toothbrushing in front of you as a story idea, how did you go about structuring your reporting? Where did you start?
I knew that veterinary dentists were a thing. It took a lot of emailing people to get anyone to talk to me; vets are very busy people and they became especially busy during the pandemic. But I did the same sort of thing that I think people usually do when they’re hunting down experts for the first time: a lot of googling. I reached out to a couple people on Twitter. A big part of this story in particular was finding anecdotes about people attempting to brush their cats’ teeth with varying degrees of success. I had seen a couple Twitter threads where people had mentioned this before, saying: “I can’t believe this is so widely recommended; no one does this.” The comments were incredibly ripe for mining. People were tweeting things like, “I would try, but I enjoy having fingers,” or you find the rare person who was like, “I got my cat used to it as a kitten.” I also posted my own little call for anecdotes about people brushing their cat’s teeth. That often has worked very, very well with pet-related stories. People love to talk about their pets.
In your story, you cited a couple of online surveys about toothbrushing rates, and there were some studies about cat gingivitis. Did you think there would be more of that bread-and-butter scientific research out there?
I was kind of surprised, and maybe a little disappointed, that there wasn’t more research on actual uptake of cat toothbrushing. The best thing I could find — and I tried to note this as well as possible in the piece — were poorly controlled online surveys. I asked every vet, “Are there any estimates of how many people will actually do this?” And they were like, “No, no one’s asked this in a systematic way.” So I just asked them, “To the best of your knowledge, what percentage of people in your practice are actually doing this?” It was a very small minority, always under 10. One person was like, “Oh, it’s got to be like 1 percent.” Another was 5 percent. So I tried to convey that it was murky, but it was very few people. Sometimes the best you can do is just give people a sense of the trends.
This is an aside, but have you ever read the story in the Atlantic about the medical ethics of dentistry? It focuses on this guy who took over a practice and then started doing unnecessary procedures on his patients, as a way of looking at how uncontrolled the profession of dentistry is.
I didn’t really go there with this, because I especially wanted to focus here on one of the preventive measures that actually does have data behind it. Tooth brushing does have data behind it. This didn’t make it into the story, but pet braces exist. That’s possibly a story for another time but I wondered about the science behind that? How much is cosmetic? How much is because a dog truly has an overbite or underbite that is making it very difficult for them to chew kibble.
Why did you start brushing your cats’ teeth in the first place?
I was just scared of having cats with tooth pain. I have teeth. I had a cavity when I was little and I remember how horrible that was. A high percentage of cats will go on to have dental disease, especially something that really harms their gums. It can cause chronic issues and significant pain. I never wanted my cats to have to go through that and it seems like such a small sacrifice to make, to brush their teeth a couple times a week.
Hats off to you. I’m in the other camp.
Yeah, none of the veterinary professionals I talked to did it, which I think speaks volumes about how tough this is and why no one should necessarily be judged for not doing it.
I’m noticing even in myself, there’s this impulse, as soon as you start talking about it, to talk about the guilt of not brushing, which is what you found even with the vets.
That was the reporting gem of the piece for me. I thought for sure, “Okay, this is rare. But the professionals, they’ve got to do it right? They’ve got to practice what they preach!” But no, it was a hit rate of almost zero among them. It was refreshing to hear from them that they, too, were shocked whenever they encountered clients who did do it because they had had so much trouble themselves. It wasn’t betrayal; it was more like amused surprise.
The next story that you wrote was about purring. How was that assigned?
Purring, gosh. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that the cat toothbrushing piece was so popular. It held number one on the site for at least a day, though I partly attribute that to the amazing artwork; it’s truly one of my favorite top-of-story art pieces ever. After that I just started making a list of other topics that I thought I might want to tackle. I remember reading somewhere that nobody really got purring. It’s something that people automatically associate with good cat vibes, but there’s also this seedy underbelly. Cats also do it when they’re feeling sad or scared. What’s up with that? No one gets purring, and nothing else can really purr.
I really like any kind of story that sort of pokes at a natural phenomenon that a lot of people take for granted. Kind of like the anus story: We’ve all got one, but you don’t get it.
Did the rest of the stories come out of that same brainstorming process?
Actually the falling-cat physics story was a suggestion from a source in the cat toothbrushing story. I love when that happens — you build such a good relationship with someone reporting one story that they start coming to you with new ideas. I was chatting with Steve Valeika, Boocat’s cat dad from the toothbrushing story, one day over Twitter DM, and he’s like, “You know, if you want another interesting cat story, you should look into High Rise Syndrome.” I loved that falling animals was such a thing in the veterinary world that it’s had this kind of cryptic, almost romantic diagnostic name.
I love any piece that starts with uproar at a conference and I had heard of High Rise Syndrome. I think there’s a Radiolab episode about it from 2010, reported by David Quammen. What I thought was really fascinating about your piece was that you were complicating the “just so story” that I’d heard before. Was that what the source pointed you towards?
Steve actually didn’t know much about it, just that there was this veterinary lore that cats seemed better able to survive higher falls. It was the middle height at which they didn’t do so well. Any sort of J-shaped survival curve is interesting to me. So theoretically is there no maximum height from which a cat can survive a fall? This was deeply entrenched in veterinary lore but it’s really just based on one or two super small studies from the ’80s. It’s not the kind of thing you could systematically study, ethically, so you can’t get a perfect answer to it.
There is a physically plausible explanation. But whether it applies, given all the vagaries of the physics of the real world — who knows? This reminded me of the whole physics joke: Consider a spherical cow in a vacuum, which is how so many college physics courses start. You just reductionist the crap out of all physical scenarios until they bear no relevance to the real world.
Have there been any ideas that haven’t panned out for you as stories?
Not yet. I’m sure I will pitch an idea and the editors will say it’s time to put a moratorium on the cat stories.”But what is great about pet stories is that there are multiple ways to approach them, and in the best ones you’re able to meld someone’s personal experience of a cat with the science of it.
That is what the Atlantic does so well. Any topic we cover, there’s a way to report the story that reveals how humans approach the world or how humans conceptualize something like a pet, and that serves as an analog for whatever other emotional attachment you have in your life. That’s why I think the pet stuff is so ripe for reporting even if there is not a ton of data. I love leaning into that, and it’s true of COVID or other emerging fields of science when the data is sparse. Just tell your reader that. Trust them to handle that nuance, as long as you’re upfront with them about it. Don’t make it seem more settled than it is.
Would you have described your reporting sensibility that way before joining the Atlantic?
I’m still figuring out what my approach to journalism is. I’ve only been doing this for a few years and so much of it has been taken over by COVID, which is its own kind of chaos. But some of my favorite stories involve taking something in the natural world that people walk past, thinking they have a reasonable understanding of it. Then you unveil for them a surprising complexity.
I’ve been trying to do some soul-searching and figure out why that is so fun for me. I think it sort of pushes back on so many of our notions of human exceptionalism. We don’t get everything and we are not the most complicated, most “evolved species” out there, right? We do so many things stupidly and terribly because we are not some sort of divine or evolutionary final destination. There’s so much cool stuff out there that we would not ever think to investigate further if we assume we get it. It’s very fun to dig into the seemingly mundane and prove to readers it’s not mundane.
Do you have a process for deciding what back-of-mind questions rise to the threshold where there’s enough for a story?
I am developing that sense slowly, with the help of my editors. There is no perfect litmus test for this, but one of the most important things is to trust my own instincts. If there’s enough tangled-ness for me to get really obsessed with something, I will write it down. Why did this catch my attention? Why did this send me down a rabbit hole? Then if I start to see that people have tons of Reddit subforums about it or have been tweeting about it or even if I see that people have written about it in the past, that gives me a sense that people are curious about it. Very often the questions get asked but never delved into terribly deeply. That’s usually enough fodder for me to at least go to an editor.
A great story often comes from wonder or curiosity, as long as there are stakes. I think about the difference between an anecdote and a story. We can write about an occurrence, but it’s not going to be a story unless there’s something that has the potential to change someone’s mind about something. It does not have to be massive. But if there are stakes, if there is potential for beginning, middle and end, then that could be a story.
You talked about reader engagement on the toothbrushing story. How much are you thinking about your audience and the Atlantic’s readership in the story pitching process?
I am not the kind of writer who checks how many clicks my stories get or how many page views or how much social engagement or how many minutes people are spending on the page. That stresses me out immensely. That being said, I do want to know what our readers are interested in. What was really fun after all of these cat pieces was that the people who read the Atlantic newsletter reached out and were like, “Do you just want to write a quick newsletter for us about why I’ve been super into writing about cats lately?” So I did.
I don’t want to lash my sense of success to clicks and views and that sort of thing. But it was amazing to see tons of comments on Twitter and get tons of emails after I wrote that newsletter of people sharing cat stories and pictures of their cats. One of them said “My cat really likes to have his belly vacuumed.” You don’t get the same thing when you write about something that people don’t have such an intimate connection with.
Do you think explicitly about readers’ appetites for reporting about COVID or other infectious diseases versus things like pet reporting?
Both are ongoing discussions. We are cognizant at the Atlantic that we have a lot of animal fans. I think if everyone were publishing their whims, we would have even more animal stories and we would probably need to reel that back in. We’re always trying to cover a diversity of things.
With COVID in particular, it’s a tricky thing we’re all trying to navigate right now. People are checking out of the pandemic, even though it’s still very much going on. They don’t want to deal with it anymore. They want this to be the first “post-pandemic winter.” And people’s appetite for pandemic stories that talk about how difficult things are for certain people, that highlight vulnerable populations and inequities, it seems there’s a dwindling proportion of our readership who are still engaged with that.
But I wouldn’t want to stop writing those stories just because of that. The opportunity to publish and write about those things is to highlight topics that people may not necessarily want to think about but perhaps should to stay informed about the status quo of their nation and of the world. At the same time, we don’t want to alienate readers right off the bat.
On a personal level, I was curious the extent to which these kinds of stories are a personal reaction to the emotional toll of covering the pandemic and monkey pox and the broader failure of U.S. public health. Have you been thinking of cat stories as a joyful antidote to the stress of that?
Kind of, yeah. I don’t have the fortitude to do pandemic and outbreak stories all the time. I have amazing colleagues who largely have, both at the Atlantic and many other publications, and they are doing incredible work. I truly wonder how people like Helen Branswell at STAT do what they do, with no reprieve to write about frog buttholes.
But my entry into science journalism was evolution, ecology, animal behavior and just wonderment about the natural world. I don’t think that’s ever something I could totally put behind me. I am incredibly lucky to be at a publication that allows me to do both. When I joined the Atlantic, I was told that outside of crisis — when news is breaking and has to be reported, which has been often during the pandemic — I should feel free to pitch things I’m obsessed with. Often the best writing does comes from that; you can see it in a writer’s pieces, in the words they use, in the quotes they get and the dedication they put into reporting. It’s a joy for me to read when I see that in my colleagues’ work. I hope that comes through when I do it.
The one thing I would add to that is I wouldn’t want to imply that I do my serious work, and then these other things are fluffy cherries on top of my reporting gig. These cat stories feel just as substantive to me in a very different way. They yield tons of other story ideas. People sometimes correlate seriousness with importance. And that’s not always fair.
Philip Keifer is