Tag Archives: human-cat relationship

Some behaviors that cat owners find problematic are in many cases just normal cat behaviors. Scratching is one of those commonly reported “nuisance behaviors” which is a perfectly natural behavior for cats. However, if not directed toward acceptable objects, feline scratching can lead to humans living with shredded couches; in some cases humans resort to painful and potentially harmful procedures, such as amputation of the cat’s toes (commonly referred to as “declawing”; I’ve written about the potential harms of declawing here).

A new study aimed to learn more about what cats scratch in homes, and what owners do in response. The results of the study, “Survey of cat owners on features of, and preventative measures for, feline scratching of inappropriate objects: a pilot study” were recently published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.

One hundred and sixteen cat owners who brought their cats to the veterinary clinic at the University of Georgia participated in the survey. In addition to your usual household demographic questions, participants were asked if their cat scratched any objects “not designated for scratching” and if so, to describe the type of object, the material, and the angle of the object in relation to the floor (e.g., horizontal or vertical). They were asked to detail how often their cat scratched the object(s) in question, the techniques they used to stop scratching behavior, whether they provided their cat with designated items for scratching, and how they encouraged their cat to use the designated item.

The cats in the study ranged in age from 1 month to 18 years, were pretty evenly distributed between the sexes, and were mostly (79.3%) indoors-only and spayed/neutered (85.2%). Eighty-seven percent of cats still had their claws (why include declawed cats in a study of undesirable scratching behavior?).

A whopping 83.9% of respondents reported that their cat scratched inappropriate items, with the majority of cats scratching said items daily. Cats overall preferred fabric chairs, sofas and other furniture – primarily things that are vertical in relation to the floor – but they also really loved carpets for scratching. Despite the frequency and type of objects scratched, owners estimated the damage at less than $100 for more scratching (y’all got some cheap couches in Georgia?).

Owners reported several ways they tried to get their cats to stop scratching, including yelling, spanking, spraying water on their cat, covering furniture with tinfoil, and providing their cat with a designated scratching item. None of these techniques was related to the reported frequency of “inappropriate scratching.”

Most cats in the study were provided with a scratching item. Photo via Flicker by Melissa Wiese https://www.flickr.com/photos/42dreams/1009400100 via Creative Commons.

Most cats (76.1%) were provided with a designated scratching item, often a scratching pole or pad. Most poles were carpet, sisal or a combination of the two; and most scratch pads were made of cardboard. Cat owners also had several methods for trying to get their cat to use the scratching item, including praise, catnip, treats, playing with a toy nearby, or placing their cat near the scratching item. No particular method was associated with success or failure, except placing the cat nearby, which was associated with less, not more, success.

The study gives us some insight into what cats are doing in the homes, and what humans are doing in response. I have a few minor quibbles with the study, one being that the data is really old – collected in 2011; in the past seven years, there’s been a bit of a cat “renaissance” – the options for cat trees and scratching objects has really expanded and hopefully nowadays cats are being provided with more and better options for scratching (I can dare to dream, can't I?).

The sample size is relatively small, focuses on cat owners in one city, and we don’t know how representative it is of all cat owners. That said, internet samples have their own problem in that pet owners who are willing to fill out surveys are also not always representative of all pet owners, so it’s nice to see a study that relied on pen and paper surveys with real people!

Many cats in this study were provided with scratching items, but still scratched other things. Whether the designated scratching items met cats’ needs is hard to determine. The average height of vertical scratching poles provided by study participants was between 2 and 3 feet tall, which falls short of the height and sturdiness that many cats prefer – there’s a reason they love sofas – they’re tall and sturdy, and usually in a good spot for the territorial marking that scratching behavior in part represents. Although 22.1% of people who tried to encourage their cat to use the designated item gave their cats treats for scratching, only one person reported using clicker training to do so.

Action shot of my cat using her Ultimate Scratching Post.

There was almost no relationship between human behavior and cat scratching behavior, but there could be too much variability in human behavior to see an effect; for example, did everyone in the study who “taught their cat how to use the designated scratching item” do so in exactly the same way? I’m guessing not.

So what can we conclude from this study? Many cats scratch chairs and carpet; but almost as many cats (79% of those who had a provided scratch post or pad) were ALSO using their designated scratching posts or pads. Most cats in the study were only provided with one designated scratching option, so one may not be enough. My own personal and professional experience: give your cat multiple scratching options that they like, in different areas of your house, and they will rarely if ever touch your furniture. Offer choices and you’ll learn their scratching preferences in no time…and save your couch from being shredded too.

Reference: Moesta, A., Keys, D., & Crowell-Davis, S. (2017). Survey of cat owners on features and preventative measures of feline scratching of inappropriate objects: a pilot study. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 1098612X17733185.

Everyone still wants to know, does my cat love me? And now, thanks to technology and an increased understanding of the human-cat relationship, we can take a better look at whether your cat misses you when you’re gone.

Does your cat miss you when you're gone?

Are cats aloof loners who don’t miss you? Or are they secretly pining away for your return while you are at work? Cats have a reputation for being a low-maintenance pet. Throw down some food and a litter box, and they’re fine, right? But I think the reputation is a bit overblown. It used to drive me nuts when I worked in an animal shelter and the adoption staff would direct someone toward adopting a cat because they worked too much for a dog. Cats have needs, and although they don’t need to be taken for a walk to go to the bathroom like dogs do, it doesn’t mean they don’t need exercise, affection, and other mental stimulation to keep them engaged. I believe this “low-maintenance” stereotype is often the culprit when it comes to people experiencing behavior problems with their cats.

That said, we know very little about what cats do when we are gone, and about the cat-human relationship. A new open-access study, “Cats and owners interact more with each other after a longer duration of separation” looked at what happens when humans leave from and return to the home, to see if cats showed any signs of what is known as “separation distress.”

The study was conducted with fourteen cats, in their homes, in Sweden. The cats normally spent most of their time indoors, and if they were allowed outdoors, it was only with supervision. The cats were tested on two consecutive days: on one day, the owner departed for 30 minutes, and on the other day, the owner was gone for four hours. All cats experienced both conditions, and the order of conditions was balanced, meaning that for some cats, the owner was gone for 30 minutes on the first day, and for other cats, the owner was gone for four hours on the first day.

Digital cameras were used to record the cats’ behaviors and vocalizations, and owners’ behavior when leaving and returning. Behaviors noted included resting, playing, grooming, walking, sitting, attention to owner, meowing, and purring (you can download a list of all the behaviors here). The cats were on camera for about 70% of the time guardians were gone. So, what happened when the guardians left?

Well, not too much. There were no differences in human or cat behavior before the guardian left or while they were gone. Cats spent more of their time resting during the longer separation.

Cats greeted their humans with a little stretch.

When guardians returned, cats were more likely to purr and stretch after the four-hour separation, than the short period of separation. Guardians were more likely to talk to their cats when they returned if they were gone for a longer time, but the purring and stretching were not dependent on that human interaction. This suggests that the cats may have noticed that their human was absent for a longer period, although it is unclear what the stretching indicates.

My guess? That the cats were taking a bit of a siesta during that longer absence (as cats often stretch when they first wake up) – which was interrupted by their human’s return.

Did the cats miss their humans? I don’t think this study provides us with a slam dunk either way. I love that the study looked at cats’ natural behaviors in their homes, and I think it’s great starting point for looking at how cats respond to human absence and presence. But the sample size is quite small, and as most research does to me, I was left with more ideas and questions than answers.

It would be great to look at cats’ activity patterns through the day, and how those are dictated by human activity. One challenge with videorecording is that when the cat is off camera, you don’t know what they are doing.

My cat's daily activity...

I recently put a Jawbone UP on my cat to see how active she is and when. What I can see is that when I’m sleeping, she’s sleeping. And that she has clear patterns of activity that reflect, to an extent, our activity in the home (note: this is not a scientific result!). In fact, I could match my fitness tracker with hers (correcting for when I’m not home, of course) and compare. Hmmm, I think I just came up with my next research project.

I also think that four hours isn’t necessarily long enough to know about how cats really respond to human absence. I don’t know what the work culture is like in Sweden, but most of my kitty clients are gone eight to twelve hours a day (if not more) if they work outside the home.

If the guardian absence wasn’t routine, and since it was different in each day of the experiment, we may not see the same level of greeting behaviors that some of us see when we come and go on a strict schedule. Just like dogs, I’ve seen many situations where cats anticipate their human’s return from work, and greet them at the door or show increased activity at that time.

Unfortunately, there is still a lot we don’t know about separation anxiety in cats, partly because we tend to use dogs as a reference point. Many dogs exhibit overt signs of separation anxiety, which can cause great stress for dog and human alike. Cats may show signs of distress that are less obvious – such as hiding, withdrawing from human interaction, or even sickness behaviors, which we know are triggered by stress and changes in routine.

Until we know more, I think we should assume that cats have needs while we are gone, and even if they aren’t meeting us at the front door. Most of us have to leave the home regularly, but I think that leaving your cat with bird feeders to watch, a sun spot to snooze in and a food puzzle to play with while you’re gone, and providing them with a structured routine including exercise and affection when you’re home are a great way to head off any separation distress at the pass!

References

Eriksson, M., Keeling, L. J., & Rehn, T. (2017). Cats and owners interact more with each other after a longer duration of separation. PloS one12(10), e0185599.

Stella, J. L., Lord, L. K., & Buffington, C. T. (2011). Sickness behaviors in response to unusual external events in healthy cats and cats with feline interstitial cystitis. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association238(1), 67-73.

Are cats hard to understand?

grumpyNot if you try to understand how they communicate! Scientists agree: cats communicate with purring, meowing, and body language. Yours truly briefly quoted within, along with some of my cat-scientist heroes, John Bradshaw and Sharon Crowell-Davis.

 

 

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