Who knows best about feline behavioral welfare?

It may not be your veterinarian.

All pets have needs - food, water, comfort, attention, stimulation. But how do we know that we are meeting a cat's welfare needs? Behavior problems can be one indicator that a pet's needs are not being met (although a lack of overt behavior problems should not be assumed to mean that all needs ARE being met). Another way to get at the question is outright ask people what they know about cat behavior and welfare, which is exactly what some scientists in Portugal did. The study, "Comparison of interpretation of cat’s behavioral needs between veterinarians, veterinary nurses and cat owners" was recently published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.

Scratching is a basic need for all cats.  Photo by Mr. TinDC via Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/2287537534/in/photostream/
Scratching is a basic need for all cats.
Photo by Mr. TinDC via Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/2287537534/in/photostream/

In the study, there were three groups of participants: 226 veterinarians, 132 vet techs and 582 cat owners who were bringing their cat to the vet. All participants were asked to what extent they agreed with several feline behavior/welfare related statements, such as "Scratching behavior is natural and needed for all cats" and "Some forms of play by the owners can lead to aggression."

The 11-item questionnaire statements broke down into three general categories related to either Elimination, Stress-Releasers or Human Stimulation. The development of the questionnaire is rather glossed over (all we know is that it was previously "pre-tested" on 50 people), so you may be thinking there are some categories or questions missing, and you may be right. But let's get to the findings.

Feline elimination behavior. Often discussed, frequently misunderstood. Photo via Wikimedia commons,  recubejim at http://flickr.com/photos/86886338@N00/2404069584
Feline elimination behavior. Often discussed, frequently misunderstood.
Photo via Wikimedia commons, recubejim at http://flickr.com/photos/86886338@N00/2404069584

Results suggested that veterinarians scored highest on knowledge related to Elimination behaviors (such as "The type of litter tray can influence the cat's elimination behavior"), with vet techs scoring higher than cat owners, who ranked lowest in knowledge. However, for the Stress-Releasers and Human Stimulation categories, there were no differences between groups; meaning that cat owners were just as knowledgeable as vets and vet techs about those two subjects, based on the questions asked.

Does it matter if your veterinary professional owns a cat? Only on the questions related to the category Stress-Releasers, in which case vets and techs with cats scored higher than those without. Otherwise, there was no "benefit" to having a veterinarian or vet-tech who was also a cat-guardian.

This study does have some limitations, one being whether or not the eleven questions the authors chose represent a full repertoire of feline behavioral welfare needs. I'm not sure that they do. We again run into the problem of not knowing whether cat owners who bring their cat to the vet regularly are different from those who do not. It was also hard to gather from the data as presented how much variability there was in the answers - did everyone generally tend to score high on most items, or did some people score very low?

On the plus side, I think the study nicely highlights that there is a need for veterinarians to either learn more about feline behavior, or to know where to refer people who need help. The veterinarian may be the only "pet professional" that some pet owners reach out to, so they play a critical role in either triage-ing or re-directing a behavioral problem. Any study that can help us understand the gaps in pet owner's understanding of their pet's behavior helps us make progress toward a better world for pets!

 

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