Can preventative behavior counseling reduce undesirable behaviors in cats?

NAUGHTY OR MISUNDERSTOOD? You decide!! Photo via Flickr/CreativeCommons LicenseTommy Hemmert Olesen https://www.flickr.com/photos/tommyhj/
NAUGHTY OR MISUNDERSTOOD? You decide!! Photo via Flickr/CreativeCommons LicenseTommy Hemmert Olesen
https://www.flickr.com/photos/tommyhj/

Are cats naughty or just misunderstood? Those of us who work professionally to help people solve behavior problems in their cats would be more likely to say the latter – I am careful in my own descriptions of behaviors as undesirable as opposed to inappropriate – because most of those "problem" behaviors are normal responses to an unsuitable (or perhaps even inappropriate!) environment.

So given that cats may be misunderstood, how can we increase owner understanding of a cat’s behavioral needs? A new study, The prevention of undesirable behaviors in cats: effectiveness of 7 veterinary behaviorists' advice given to kitten owners, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, took a look at whether a standardized behavior discussion between vets and new kitten owners could prevent misunderstandings later.

The experimental group (n=45) was comprised of kitten owners (average age of cat = 2.8 months) who had a 25 minute or so discussion with a veterinary behaviorist about such topics as socializing kittens to humans and other pets, litterbox set up, environmental enrichment, positive reinforcement training, appropriate play, and various types of handling. Ten months later, all owners in the experimental (behavior advice) group were interviewed, along with 46 control (no advice) owners who had cats of a similar age (approximately a year old).

The interview consisted of several questions about topics such as the cat’s lifestyle (indoor or outdoor); the owner’s provision of things like litterboxes, toys and scratching posts; how the cat responded to strangers and handling; and whether the cat exhibited any undesirable behaviors (such as housesoiling or aggression). Results suggested a few differences between the owners who had received early behavior advice and those who had not.

Cats in the control gropu were more vocal. Photo by Hiroshi Shimizu.
Cats in the control group were more vocal. Photo by Hiroshi Shimizu.

Owners from the control group were more likely to have complaints about their cat’s behavior and to have sought behavior advice before the interview. Owners from the experimental group were more likely to feed their cats several times a day, and give their cats outdoor access (in fact, more of those cats lived primarily outdoors). Control group cats were more likely to climb curtains and on all furniture, and to be vocal. Cats in the experimental group were more likely to seek physical contact and rub on their owners.

From this, the authors of the study conclude that the behavioral advice led to “a better human-cat relationship” and that this led to fewer behavior problems in the cats in the experimental group. Are you convinced? I had a lot of questions about how the results were presented and whether we could determine any cause and effect based on these results.

Let me say that I am all in favor of educating owners early and often! It is unlikely to hurt, and may increase owner awareness about the basic needs of cats. However, there are a few confounds in these results that make it difficult to say that the behavioral counseling was what led to improvements in the cat’s behaviors.

Outdoor access may be a confound in this study. Photo via public domain.
Outdoor access may be a confound in this study. Photo via public domain.

First of all, the owners in the experimental group were more likely to have cats that primarily lived outdoors (almost half of them!). I’m not sure if that is a good welfare outcome for cats (where I live, in an urban environment, I would say no), and if that outcome was in any way influenced by the behavior education (perhaps once the owners heard all the things they were supposed to do to keep their cat happy they said, “F**k this, Pumpkin, you’re going outside!”). It is also likely that by being outside more, those cats were (1) around their owners less, and subsequently annoying them less, or (2) provided with more mental stimulation and exercise in a way that had little to do with the owner’s education about cat behavior. So it’s possible that the reduction in behavior issues reported was driven more by outdoor access than by education.

The authors also concluded that the behavior advice prevented problems with other pets in the home, in that no owners from the experimental group mentioned problems with other cats, while two out of 29 owners in the control group did. They didn’t note how many members of the experimental group owned multiple cats, so it makes it difficult to compare these results and determine whether two vs. zero is a meaningful result.

Forty percent of the cats were unneutered at the time of the interview, another factor that could contribute to undesirable behavior in either group. Since there are few levels of analyses (such as looking how education, neuter status, and access to outdoors might interact to impact behavior), it is hard to parse out just what exactly is going on in the study.

With any experiment, authors must typically edit their manuscript significantly for publication, often having to remove details that later readers like me would like to know! I think what we can safely conclude from this paper is that owners in the group who received behavior advice appeared to have better attitudes about their cats. I don’t think we can conclude that this improved “cattitude” is caused by the behavior advice without more information, and potentially another study with a larger sample size to allow some of those other factors (such as neuter status and outdoor access) to be included in the analysis.

It’s also an open question as to how new owners should get that behavior advice. It is possible that many options could be available that would not require a veterinary behaviorist – such as written materials, interactive mobile phone apps, online videos, or adoption counseling by a trained shelter worker – and those methods might be just as effective as the type of advising conducted in this study. As always, more questions than answers, but keep the cat research coming!

Reference

Gazzano, A., Bianchi, L., Campa, S., & Mariti, C. (2015). The prevention of undesirable behaviors in cats: Effectiveness of veterinary behaviorists' advice given to kitten owners. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 10(6), 535-542.

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One thought on “Can preventative behavior counseling reduce undesirable behaviors in cats?

  1. Another great article, Mikel! I, too, saw the issue of more outdoor kitties in the experimental group being an issue, which could be a significant confounding factor. It seems like they could have chosen participants who had indoor-only cats, and cats who were already neutered or spayed by the age that the behavior advice would be given (for both the control and experimental groups). Anyway, it's not a totally convincing study, but like you said, I would much rather err on the side of giving cat guardians as much information as possible so that they can meet their kitties' needs. I look forward to more studies that can tease out the benefits of behavioral counseling a little better! - marci 😀

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