Tag Archives: preference tests

Furniture scratching by cats is one of those things that falls into the category of “normal feline behavior that bothers humans.” Scratching is an essential feel-good behavior for cats that allows them to stretch their back muscles and mark their territory (both visually and through the scent glands in the paws). Cats often scratch human furniture such as couches, chairs, stereo speakers, hampers or carpets because they aren’t provided with other scratching outlets, or when what they are provided with does not fit their needs.

A critical way to stop cats from scratching the furniture is to give them something to scratch that they like. Through three experiments, a new publication sought to assess the scratching preferences of housecats, and also looked at whether adding an olfactory supplement would increase scratching of objects. The manuscript, “Scratcher preferences of adult in-home cats and effects of olfactory supplements on cat scratching” was recently published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

A total of 36 housecats participated in the study, from the comfort of their own homes. In each experiment, cats were presented with choices for scratching, and preferences were assessed by measuring the amount of time, and the frequency of visits the cat made to each, over the course of a week. A video camera was set up to record feline visits to the scratching posts. 

In the first experiment, cats were simultaneously presented with a standing cardboard scratcher and a cardboard scratcher pad to see if they preferred vertical or horizontal scratching.

 

In Experiment 2, cats were given the choice of four vertical scratchers, each of which was covered with a different texture (cardboard, sofa fabric, carpet, and rope).

 

Finally, the third study gave the cats the choice of two vertical cardboard scratching posts, one of which had an added olfactory stimulus (either catnip, silver vine, or the product Feliscratch provided in a sock), and the other that had a matching control stimulus (an unscented sock).

So what did the cats like? In Experiment 1, results suggested that the cats showed a stronger preference for the vertical, standing scratcher over the S-shaped cardboard pad. The cats in Experiment 2 spent more time scratching and paid more visits to the cardboard and rope compared to the sofa fabric. The response to the carpet was more middle-of-the-road “meh.”

In Experiment 3, the catnip and silver vine were both successful in increasing scratching interactions, compared to the unscented sock. There was no such effect of the Feliscratch treatment, which resulted in similar levels of scratching as the unscented sock.

Now, it’s worth noting, in case you were wondering, that Feliscratch is produced by the same company that brought us Feliway. It’s advertised as “a simple answer to cat’s inappropriate scratching in the home.” I’ve shared my opinions on Feliway before, and based on the comments, it’s definitely both the most popular and most hated blog post I’ve ever written (note: if you submit a comment that is rude or insults me, I will not post it).

Getting ready to apply the Feliscratch.

I obtained a free sample of Feliscratch a few years ago, and tried it out with my own cats. It stained my scratching post, as promised, which I wasn’t super-thrilled about. To boot, my cats didn’t just NOT scratch more, they actively avoided the scratch post I placed the Feliscratch on for several weeks. So, once again, in my experience Feliway promises more than it generally delivers, and this study adds more doubt (at least in my mind) about its efficacy.

After Feliscratch application. No cats are interested.

On the other hand – a quick, cheap and positive way to enhance your scratching posts is to add a little ‘nip or silver vine to them!

Although not an airtight study, these experiments point to the importance of offering choices for your cat when it comes to scratching opportunities. We can use cats’ OVERALL preferences to guide what we provide for our cats, while understanding that each individual cat may have their own preferences. And how do you know you’ve picked the right scratching post? When your cat uses it and not the couch!

BONUS: My general tips on preventing furniture scratching:

  • Find out the texture(s) your cat likes best! Offering choices, just like in this study, is a great way to figure out what your cat likes…and they might like multiple textures or angles!
  • Provide your cat something tall and sturdy to scratch (AT LEAST 3’ high). Small, kitten-sized scratchers are not tall enough, and scratch pads that hang on a doorknob are too wobbly to be comfortable.
  • Provide multiple scratchers in different locations of your home.
  • Location matters: Don’t hide the scratchers in the back corner of your office or in the basement. Scratch posts should be placed in prominent locations, including near where your cat likes to eat, sleep and greet you.
  • You can lure your cat to explore the post with toys or catnip/silver vine, but DO NOT carry your cat to the post and move their paws on it. This is an aversive experience for most cats that will steer them AWAY, not toward the post.
  • Praise your cat and dole out treats for scratching post use. Positive reinforcement works!

Reference:

Zhang, L., & McGlone, J. J. (2020). Scratcher preferences of adult in-home cats and effects of olfactory supplements on cat scratching. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 104997.

About three years ago, a NY Times article drew attention to a problem plaguing cats around the world – a condition called “whisker stress” or “whisker fatigue.” Whisker stress is described as an unpleasant sensation caused when a cat’s whiskers touch the side of the bowl as they eat or drink. In the NY Times article, whisker fatigue was posited as a veterinary diagnosis (an exaggeration) that answered outstanding questions about some of cats’ strange eating behaviors – from finicky eating to pushing food out of the bowl and eating it off the floor. Cats’ whiskers ARE incredibly sensitive, and at their base, they are attached to specialized receptors that detect movement. Whiskers allow cats to detect air movement, objects nearby and navigate through narrow spaces. But apparently all that sensitivity can be too much of a good thing.

The solution to whisker stress? Cat’s gotta eat – and sure enough, there are over a dozen “whisker friendly” bowls or dishes that come up from a quick search on a well-known online retailer’s website. The NY Times article featured interviews with several manufacturers of these whisker friendly products, leading Boston Magazine to question whether or not NY Times was risking their journalistic integrity in reporting on this little-known feline epidemic.

 

The question that emerges from this controversy is whether or not whisker stress is real, or just a made up marketing ploy to sell everyone new food dishes for their cats. Finally, science comes to the rescue! Recently a new manuscript, “Evaluation of whisker stress in cats” was published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, to answer that very question. The study, based out of the School of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University, tested 38 housecats in order to find out if there is evidence that whisker stress is real.

To do this, researchers first got some data about each participating kitty. They measured each cat’s whiskers (both on their eyebrows and muzzles) and measured the diameter and depth of each cat’s usual food dish. At home, owners got their cats hungry by withholding food for 12 hours. They then offered their cat a set amount of dry food in their regular food dish, and filmed their cat’s eating behavior for five minutes. For the next week, they fed their cat from a whisker-friendly (WF) dish, then they again withheld food for 12 hours, and filming their cat eating from the WF dish for five minutes. The researchers also matched the WF dish to the material of the cat’s usual food dish (ceramic or stainless steel).

Photo from Slovak, J. E., & Foster, T. E. (2020). Evaluation of whisker stress in cats. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 1098612X20930190.

The final step happened the next day; the owner offered the cat food from their usual dish AND the WF dish side by side to see if their cat had a preference. The variables that were measured to assess whether cats experienced whisker stress included the amount of food eaten from each dish, whether the cat dropped food while eating from either dish, how much time they spent during the five minute period eating, and on the final step, which food dish the cat chose to eat from first.

So is whisker stress a thing? Well, researchers found no differences between cats’ eating behavior at their normal food bowl or when eating from the WF dish. They ate on average about the same amount of food, they dropped around the same amount of food (and if anything, they dropped more food when eating from the WF dish than their usual dish – 14 kibbles on average versus 1; this may be because the shallow dish means that the dry food got pushed ‘over the edge’). They also spent the same amount of time during the five-minute period eating at both their usual dish and the whisker-friendly one.

The only inkling that cats might dig the whisker-friendly option was from the result of the preference trial, where 63% of kitties first approached the WF dish. Now the preference trial itself was a “one shot” deal, and it is possible that the cats just chose whichever dish was placed closer to them. Ideally, the cats would have been given multiple trials to assess if the preference would be consistent across several trials. They would have also randomized the location of the dishes (left or right side) as many cats show a “side bias” when tested by stimuli that are offered side-by-side. It is also possible that the cats preferred the WF bowl for reasons other than the fact that their whiskers didn’t touch the side of the bowl; for example, a higher-sided whisker UNFRIENDLY dish may block a cat’s ability to see anyone approaching while they eat.

To sum up, this study did not provide STRONG evidence for whisker stress, as there could be alternative explanations for the only finding that supported a preference in some cats for the WF bowls. Do you need to throw away your whisker-friendly bowl? Or perhaps you’re wondering if you should be a late adopter and go whisker-friendly?

When it comes to our cats, I’m a big fan of choice. If you want to see if your cat would like a WF bowl, you could try one out and see what your cat prefers. If you’re cheap like me, you could feed your cat their food on a saucer (very cheap from thrift stores) and see if they like that before investing in a bowl that will set you back 15-25 bucks. And yes, it is reasonable to think that cats’ whiskers are sensitive – we know they are. But they are sensitive in the place your hair is – at the base. If you cut your hair, you don’t feel it in the same way as you do when your hair is being pulled! And would cats have survived this long as companion animals if they couldn’t eat or drink from a bowl without suffering?

Reference

Slovak, J. E., & Foster, T. E. (2020). Evaluation of whisker stress in cats. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 1098612X20930190.

Dr. Karen Overall once stated quite eloquently: “Behavior kills more cats annually than does viral disease.” One of the least tolerated behavior problems in cats is when they eliminate outside the litter box, and many cats lose their homes (and lives) for an issue that I believe is often one that COULD BE fixed, if humans:

  1. Understood what cats generally prefer about litter boxes
  2. Maintained a suitable litter box environment for their cat(s)

Previous research has suggested cats generally prefer large boxes and clay clumping litters. It is interesting to note that when I have clients whose cats are avoiding the litter box, I often have them present their cat with a “cafeteria” of litter choices to see if their cat has a clear preference. Even when those buffets include ONLY unscented clay clumping litters of different brands, it’s easy to see that not all clumping litters are created equally…and that many cats have specific individual preferences.

But back to general preferences of cats. One thing that often surprises me when I go to a client’s home is how dirty their litter box is. It’s not unusual for folks to clean a box every other day or even less – even in homes with multiple cats and just one litter box. I personally find it gross, and I assume that cats would too. But do we REALLY know if a dirty litter box bothers cats?

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