Cat with July 4th colorsDoes the color of your cat’s coat mean anything? Is there a link between coat color and temperament in cats?

Black cats are often associated with the occult; orange cats tend to be regarded as friendly.  Calico and tortoiseshell cats – those cats with tri-colored coats – are considered strong-willed and difficult to work with.  There is even a term – “tortitude” – to describe these cats!

In a study published in 2016, researchers at UC Davis decided to look into whether there is a link between coat color and temperament – in particular, do cats with particular colors of coats tend to be more aggressive? Cat owners were recruited online to fill out a survey about their cats. The team received 1,274 responses that they analyzed with statistics. 

Owners scored their cats for

  • aggression toward humans
  • aggression when being punished, petted, or brushed
  • aggression when in the veterinary clinic

Aggression toward humans scored the frequency with which a cat reacted with aggressive or affiliative behavior to people. A 6 point scale was used ranging from 0 = never through monthly, weekly, up to 5 = daily.  Behaviors included hiss, bite, slap/scratch, bite/scratch and stalk (play), groom/lick, curl up next to, approach and greet with head/body rubs.  The possible range of scores was 0-20.

Aggression from handling scored the likelihood that the cat would react to being punished, petted or brushed by hissing, biting, slapping or scratching.  Scores ranged from 0 = unlikely to 3 = very likely. The maximum score possible was 27.  Aggression during the veterinary visit was also scored from 0 = likely to 3 = very likely but with a maximum score of 9.

Overall, the aggression scores are rather low in all three categories.  For example, in the “human aggression” category, high scores were 2-3 out of 20.  Female cats had higher scores overall but the research team felt the difference to be small enough that they could combine the sexes in the overall study.

Coat color and temperament – findings


Tortitude


The calico and tortoiseshell cats were found to have some of the higher scores (2.47) for aggression toward humans (Gray and white cats scored 2.26 – so not much different than the tri-color cats). 

  • These scores are not very high scores out of a possible 20. 
  • Calico/tortoiseshell cats are predominantly female (the tri-color pattern is linked to the X chromosome making the combination of 3 colors very rare in male cats).  Female cats were found to be a little more aggressive than male cats in this study and this sample would have had more females.
  • Perhaps, the stereotype of the “strong-willed” tri-colored female cat affected how respondents scored their cats.

other findings


  • Gray and white cats, both female and male, were more aggressive toward humans and when being handled. 
  • Black and white male cats scored higher than other groups of male cats in human-directed aggression.
  • Surprisingly, there were no significant differences in aggression among cats at the veterinary clinic.

Although the results of this study seem to support the stereotypes of cat color and aggressive behavior, e. g. “tortitude”, it is best to take these results with a grain of salt. 

  • Overall, the scores for aggression to humans and when being handled were quite low.
  • The questionnaires were completed by the owners and there will be some differences in the way people interpret and score things.
  • Stereotypes may have affected how respondents view their cats and scored them.
  • The questionnaires did not involve a random sample of cats and cat owners but cat owners who voluntarily signed up to fill out the forms. These could be potentially more interested and “saavy” owners.
  • There will be differences in how people approach and handle their cats.

At the Battersea Dogs and Cats home, cats were more friendly with humans after the human volunteers watched a video demonstrating how to  interact with cats. ( see “Practical Guidelines for Interacting with Cats” )

The link between coat color and aggressive behavior does not seem particularly strong.  Such information could be useful to cat owners, shelters, and veterinary clinics to allow them to anticipate what behaviors they may encounter. But as the saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.  A cat’s coat color is only part of the story – it is important to assess each cat as an individual.  Approach him or her respectfully following the CAT guidelines.

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art by Cal Meyer

Cats and boxes are a purrfect combination.  An enclosed space like a box can be a safe place, help keep a cat warm and give him a vantage point to ambush “prey” (unfortunate insects, catnip mice…). Boxes are also popular with other animals – big cats are often given boxes for enrichment at zoos and refuges; dogs also like boxes to play in but some may tend to chew the box up!

Cats will also sit on just about anything, comfortable or not. Anyone who does craft projects well knows that once the fabric is out to be cut, a cat will be sitting on it soon enough. Years ago, cats sat on newspapers if you tried to spread the paper out on the table – nowadays, they park on computer keyboards. Some of this is attention-seeking behavior – Zelda only lets me type so long Sunday mornings before she gets up on my desk and threatens to contribute to the post if I don’t take her for her morning walk.

In 2009, the USPS came up with the Christmas slogan, “If it fits, it ships”.  A few years later, a variant of the slogan became an Internet cat meme: “It it fits, I sits”.  This gave rise to posts of cats in all sort of places, from egg cartons and shoeboxes, to bowls and sinks.

The Internet exploded again in 2017 as people used tape to outline squares on the floor for their cats to sit in. Cats were “trapped” in all manner of taped shapes, with cat experts offering explanations ranging from cats reacting to new smells (from the tape) to survival instinct, where the cats must investigate something new (the taped square) to determine if it poses danger to them.  Some felt that the taped square offered the cat a sense of security, much like a real box.

The phenomenon did not stop here – in 2020, during the COVID pandemic, a woman in the Philippines photographed stray cats practicing “social distancing” – the cats sat on circles painted on the ground 6 feet apart outside a food market.

cats and boxes: optical illusions


It is not surprising that cats in taped squares became the subject of a research study investigating cats’ responses to optical illusions. In a two month study in June-August of 2020, researchers at Hunter College enrolled over 500 cat owners to participate in a study to assess cats’ responses to a taped square, a Kanizsa square (which gives the illusion of a square), and a control figure.

Enrolled owners were sent booklets containing pairs of these shapes that they affixed to the floor.  The owners then took videos of their cats’ responses to the shape-pairs and submitted the videos to the research team.  They were to do this once daily for 6 days.

The results found that of the 30 cats that completed all six trials of the experiment, only nine of them “participated”, that is, sat in one of the shapes. These cats were just as likely to sit in the taped square as the Kanizsa square. Only once did one of the cats choose to sit in the control shape.

What does this tell us about cats? Are they susceptible to the optical illusion of a square? Do they recognize it as a square? I think more research will have to be done:

  • Only 9 out 30 cats actually sat in the shapes.
  • Cats are not as tall as we are and don’t see well close up. Can they see the squares from their vantage point?
  • I, for one, would like to know how many cats will voluntarily sit in a taped outline – I tried leaving a hula hoop out on the floor to see if any of my four cats would voluntarily sit in the circular outline. I did not have any takers!

This study is the first to use “citizen scientists” (the owners) to observe the cats in their home environments, thereby avoiding stress-induced behaviors that cats can exhibit in unfamiliar settings, such as a laboratory.

Back to cats and boxes…


Cats are practical. They prefer their owners to their owners’ T-shirts. I feel that they would prefer a physical box to a taped outline. A box is a great source of enrichment – it can be a bed, a den, it can be place to hide while ambushing a toy mouse going by. Shelter cats acclimate to their surroundings more quickly when provided a box to hide in.

Boxes that are too small to allow a cat to hide may make him feel good by putting physical pressure on his body, like when we wedge ourselves in the corner of the sofa watching a favorite TV program.  Pressure on soft tissue has been shown to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety in both humans and animals.

So, make sure your cat has a safe place – a place he can call his own, a place that is secure, secluded, a hiding place to retreat to, warm in the winter, cool in the summer. It can be a cardboard box in a closet or in a secluded corner!

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Moving to a new home is stressful even when everything goes right! Imagine how confusing moving is to our cats – the boxes are fun when empty but soon they fill up with things and your cat can no longer jump in.

From the Feline Purrspective…


The bed you used to siesta on gets bagged up and taken away by strange humans. Your world seems to be coming to an end. Will you have enough to eat? Will you be safe from predators? Where can you hide?

Cats are territorial animals. An outdoor cat’s home range is the maximum area he roams and hunts in. Within the home range is a smaller area that the cat will actively defend – his territory. Inside this defended area is a smaller area called the “core territory”, where the cat can rest, has shelter, and feels safe from predators and other cats. Moving with your cat removes him from his core territory – the house or apartment he lives in.

How can we communicate safety and security to our cats when we move? Somehow, we cat owners have to provide what our cats need even though we are no longer “at home”.Needs of Domestic cats

What our cats need:

  1. Resources : food, water, litter box, shelter
  2. Safe access to resources
  3. Belonging: territory
  4. Human interaction: predictable
  5. Playtime: predatory behavior

Moving with Your Cat

Getting ready


  1. Resources: Stock up on your cat’s preferred litter and food – if you are traveling by air, perhaps you can ship some of this to your new address.
  2. Safe access to resources: Create a “safe place” for your cat. When moving with your cat, this will most likely be her carrier.  Make sure your cat is comfortable in her “home away from home”.  In the weeks leading up to the move, leave it out for her to explore and nap in. Consider feeding her meals in it.
  3. Set up a “mobile” territory: A lot of cat communication is by smell. Cats have some of the best noses -with 30 genetic variants of the V1R receptor protein in their vomeronasal organs, they are able to discriminate between a wide variety of smells. So, avoid laundering cat blankets or quilts that your cat sleeps on – the familiar scent of home can help reassure your cat of his territory when he is on the move.
  4. Predictable, positive human interaction:Try to maintain daily feeding and grooming routines as you travel.
  5. Predatory play: Don’t forget play time – try to set some time aside to play with your cat when traveling.

moving day


 

You may want to keep your cat(s) in their own room with carriers as furniture, etc is moved – you don’t want them to escape!

Arriving at your new home…


  • Establish a “safe place”: Choose a room that you can locate your cat’s essential resources in. Some familiar furniture will reassure him. Leave his carrier in there.
  • Use pheromone diffusers in the “safe place”. You may also want to have them throughout the new house or apartment.
  • A gradual introduction to the new house is best for many cats.
    Pay attention to your cat’s body language – if she seems scared or frightened, allow her to stay in the “safe room”. Once she seems curious, allow her to explore while having access to the “safe place”.
  • Maintain feeding and play/grooming routines as best as you can.

Some cats are more adventurous than others and may want to explore the new place once things are moved in. Keep a close eye on your cat’s body language.

Other things to consider when moving with your cat:


  • Is your cat microchipped in case he escapes?
  • Consider a calming supplement such as Zylkene, Calming Care. It is best if you start these several weeks before moving.
  • Copies of your cats medical records
  • Do you need a health certificate for travel?
  • Consider getting your cat accustomed to wearing a harness and leash. Even if not fully leashed trained, a harnessed cat can be more easily handled in an airport or at a rest stop if you have to change out soiled pads in the carrier.
  • Consider asking your vet for calming medication for travel.

Moving with your cat is an adventure…


I recently moved from my townhome of 13 years to a larger, two story house. It was a local move and was a bit drawn out since we did the moving ourselves. The four cats were curious at first but seemed to be a bit edgy as furniture began to disappear. I had started giving them Calming Care about 10 days before moving and planned to continue it for a week or so after arrival. (Many of these supplements may need 4-6 weeks to reach full effect).

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry…

(adapted from  “To a Mouse,” by Robert Burns)


I had planned for the four cats to stay in the master suite for a few days after moving and had set them up in there. But before long, paws began to show up under the doors, as all four cats proceeded to rattle the closed doors.

I finally gave in and let them out. I was worried that they would hide in some inaccessible space but they proceeded to explore and prowl around. I had placed the large cat tree so that the cats could access the top of the kitchen cabinets – this was a popular (although dusty) activity. The next day, Gus managed to catch some mice in the basement – we were officially moved in!

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Sphynx cat
Some consider Sphynx cats to be “hypoallergenic”.

Did you know that about 1 in 3 people in the United States are allergic to cats and dogs? Those of us who are mildly “allergic” are familiar with the sneezing and runny nose that may come with handling our pets. More severe reactions may include signs of asthma, such as wheezing and difficulty breathing.

What makes us allergic to cats?


A protein called Fel d1 is the primary allergen in cats, accounting for about 95% of the allergy responses in adults sensitive to cats.  Fel d1 is mainly produced in the cat’s salivary and sebaceous glands and is spread through the cat’s fur as he grooms. As he sheds fur and skin (dander), Fel d1 is distributed throughout your home.  Breathing in dander or having contact with it can trigger an allergic reaction in a sensitive person.

Fel d1 is light, easily airborne and can be found just about everywhere, even in pet-free homes and institutions such as schools. Usually these levels are low and do not impact people in general.

Reducing Fel d1 in your home


Being allergic to cats does not always mean you have to re-home your feline friend. What you need to do is reduce the amount of Fel d1 in your home. Here are some things you can do:

  • Fur tends to “stick” more to fabrics – vacuum upholstery and carpets frequently.
  • Consider switching out carpet for hardwood or vinyl floors.
  • Use covers that you can launder on sofas and upholstered chairs.
  • HEPA air filters and HEPA vacuum filters can also help.
  • Clean regularly and frequently.
  • Open the windows when you can.

What about bathing my cat?


Bathing your cat does reduce the amount of Fel d1. Researchers do not agree on how long the beneficial effects last – one study found that washing cats significantly reduced the airborne amount of allergen but the levels of Fel d1 returned to pre-wash levels within the week. Many cats do not like to be bathed – a weekly bath may become a weekly battle.

Purina has developed a waterless shampoo for reducing Fel d1 which does not require immersing the cat in a tub or hosing her down. This may be easier to use if you want to try bathing your cat. The shampoo is said to reduce allergens 33% in 24 hours .

Chickens and Eggs – can they keep us from being allergic to cats?


Chickens produce antibodies against environmental antigens that they can transfer into their eggs and give their chicks immunity against these antigens. Researchers at Nestle-Purina were able to develop an “anti-Fel d1” antibody by exposing hens to Fel d1. This “ anti-Fel d1” reduces the amount of active Fel d1 in the cat’s saliva when the cat eats food containing the “anti- Fel d1” egg product. Purina “Live Clear” is now commercially available after 10 years of research and studies. It has been shown to reduce active Fel d1 by an average of 47% after 3 weeks of feeding.

“Hypoallergenic” cats


All cats produce Fel d1 – some produce more than others. Intact male cats produce more Fel d1 than female cats and neutered and spayed cats.  Older cats may produce less Fel d1 than younger ones.

Some cat breeds are known for not producing much Fel d1. These cats typically do not shed much. It is thought that the reduction in the amount of hair reduces the amount of Fel d1 in the environment. On the other hand, these cats still groom and spread dander that has sebaceous secretions containing Fel d1.  Among breeds thought to produce less Fel d1 are:

  • Sphynx
  • Cornish and Devon Rex
  • Siberian cats (may have a genetic mutation that causes them to release less Fel d1)
  • Russian blue
  • Balinese
  • Peterbald
Sphynx cat doll
A doll based on a Sphynx cat!

 

What does the future hold for those of us  who are allergic to cats?


The Crisper Cat: A Virginia based company, Indoor Biotechnologies, is looking into removing the Fel d1 gene from cat cells in order to develop a truly “hypoallergenic” cat.

A Vaccine to Make Cats less Allergenic: Saiba Animal Health is developing a vaccine for cats that will induce “anti-Fel d1” antibodies to form in vaccinated cats.  These antibodies will bind Fel d1 and will effectively neutralize its allergenic effect on humans.

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a cat is examined in her carrier
A cat is examined in a familiar place – the bottom of her carrier.

The other day a client brought her cat in for an exam and vaccines. This cat had been previously seen at the clinic and had been aggressive toward the veterinary staff and the owner. She had been prescribed gabapentin to reduce anxiety when coming in for vet visits. Gabapentin is bitter, so some cats will not eat it in food and may need to be given the pill.

The owner was unable to get her cat to eat the powder in food and brought the cat in unmedicated. This cat was in a soft carrier and was striking with her front paws at the carrier sides when approached. When cats are in a negative emotional state as was this cat, the two ways available to the veterinary professional to try change the emotional state are food and play. This cat was having neither.

A dilemma – proceed with the visit?


 

the veterinary staff


If we move forward, glove up and use thick towels, we can immobilize the cat and perhaps administer vaccines. Being in the soft carrier, she would be difficult to get out, but we could give the vaccine through the mesh sides, although there would be the risk if she wiggled loose a vaccine intended to go under the skin could end up in the muscle.

the cat’s point of view


When presented with a threatening scenario, a cat has three options: 1) flight 2) fight 3) freeze (learned helplessness).
The cat in question was in a carrier in an exam room so flight was out of the question. She decided to fight, which she was ready to do,  striking at the carrier sides when the owner or veterinary staff approached.

Imagine being snugly enveloped by towels, you can’t see what’s going on nor can you move. Some cats will continue to thrash, kick, and bite; other cats will give up at some point. The exam may be very brief, perhaps just measuring the heart rate through the towel. Whether the cat continues to fight or gives up, the experience is negative. If the cat perceives that fighting is successful – after all, she goes home after the struggle –  she may fight even harder on the next visit. The cat will stick with a strategy she thinks works.

the stress of the vet visit


So many owners are stressed about how their cat is treated at the vet clinic, they try to avoid bringing the cat in until it is absolutely necessary. Sometimes, to the cat’s detriment, health conditions have worsened by the time the cat receives medical care.

owner’s stress


  • The cat hides under the bed when the carrier comes out.
  • The cat has to be “dragged” out from under the bed.
  • The cat does not want to go into the carrier.
  • The cat cries constantly on the way to the vet.
  • The owner anticipates that the cat will be difficult and sedation will increase the cost of the visit.

the cat’s stress


  • You are placed in a box that you associate with fear and anxiety.
  • Your box (with you in it!) is placed in a larger box that moves and smells funny.
  • You are frightened, may be nauseated, or may soil yourself.
  • The vet clinic smells of other frightened animals.
  • You are handled by strange humans.

Each time “heavy restraint” is used, a cat often becomes increasingly aggressive, until the exam and treatments have to be done under anesthesia.

Cat friendly handling – breaking the cycle


Cat friendly handling is geared toward following the CAT handling guidelines.

  • Give the cat as much choice and control as possible.
  • Pay attention  to the cat’s body language and tailor the handling to the individual cat.
  • Touch the cat where he prefers to be touched.
  • Positive Reinforement: Make unpleasant procedures (vaccines, sample collection) worthwhile to the cat, offering food or head rubs.

Low Stress vet visits require that the veterinary staff and cat owner work together as a team.  Cat friendly handling begins at home and continues when the cat and owner arrive at the vet clinic.

“A BETTER VET VISIT FOR YOUR CAT


  1. Train your cat to comfortable in her carrier. Consider a carrier with a removable lid so that she can at least be examined in the safety of her “home away from home”.
  2. Desensitize your cat to riding in the car – take a drive around the block where you don’t end up at the vet.
  3. If the veterinary team recommends an anti-anxiety “cocktail”, figure out how your cat will take it. Consider training your cat to accept medication.
  4. If your cat has a favorite treat or food that he likes, consider picking up his food the night before for a morning appointment or in the morning for an afternoon appointment. Bring the treats along and offer them to the staff to feed kitty during his exam or procedures.
  5. Choose a Cat Friendly Practice where the staff have had some training in cat friendly handling.

What happened with the cat we talked about earlier?


The owner felt that a cat-only practice made her cat more reactive. We elected not to proceed with the exam and suggested the owner find a clinic that was a better fit. We can only hope that the cycle of aggression will be broken.

Like taking a toddler to the doctor, the vet visit can be scary for your cat. Cat friendly handling can make the visit less stressful for both you and your cat!

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Cats are not only predators, they are also prey for larger carnivores like coyotes. A predator will target a weak or injured prey animal so it is important that prey animals hide their pain, so they don’t become some else’s snack. Cats are no exception and are masters at hiding pain. As a veterinary technician, I have found clients often do not give pain medication that we send home because “he didn’t seem painful”.

Painful cat?

how do I know if my cat is painful?


It is hard to assess pain in animals and young children.  They can’t tell you how it hurts. There has been interest in  developing methodology for computer assessment of pain in human children using facial expressions. Humans have expressive faces, with 42 facial muscles; there is a universal “pain face”, with lowered eyebrows, eyes squeezed together, nose wrinkled, raised upper lip and open mouth.

Like us, cats also have a “pain face” but it takes some practice to become attuned to it. The Feline Grimace Scale (FGS) was developed to give veterinary professionals an easy-to-use tool to assess whether a cat needs pain medication. With some practice and attention to your cat’s environment, you can tell if your cat is painful.

The FGS focuses on 5 facial features:

  1. position of the ears
  2. shape of the eyes
  3. shape of the muzzle
  4. attitude of the whiskers
  5. position of the head

Each feature is assigned a score of 0, 1 or 2.

“0” = no pain

“1” = moderate appearance of pain

“2” = obvious appearance of pain

The highest pain score with this system is 10; a score of 4/10 indicates the need for pain medication.

The Kitty Pain Face


scoring The Ears

  • Score = 0  Ears are up and facing forward
  • Score = 1   Ears are not facing forward and further apart; they are a little “flat” 
  • Score = 2   Ears are flattened and rotated out, like the wings of an airplane

scoring the eyes

  • Score =0     Eyes are open
  • Score = 1     Eyes partially closed
  • Score =2      Eyes are “squeezed shut”

scoring the muzzle

  • Score = 0    Muzzle is relaxed and round in shape
  • Score = 1     Muzzle is tense and starting to become flatter
  • Score = 2    Muzzle is tense and elliptical in shape

scoring the whiskers

  • score = 0   Whiskers are relaxed and curved downwards
  • Score = 1    Whiskers are beginning to straighten, as the muzzle becomes tense
  • Score = 3    Whiskers are straight or forward

scoring the head

  • Score = 0  The head is up and above the line of the shoulders
  • Score = 1  The head is in line with the shoulders
  • Score = 2   The is below the line of the shoulder

Using the FGS


The FGS was developed for veterinary staff to monitor hospitalized patients.  In the validation studies, cats were observed undisturbed for 30 seconds.  This could be a challenge in the home, where the cat is not in a kennel and can move around.

Pain causes anxiety and stress. The expressions making up the cat’s  “pain face” overlap with the body language of stress. How can you eliminate environmental stress when scoring your cat for pain?

getting a valid score for your cat


Don’t have 30 seconds?

If you’re having trouble watching your cat for 30 seconds, try scoring your cat, then score him again in 15-20 minutes and see if you get the same results as before.

Pain or environmental stress?

Reduce the effect of the environment on your cat. Don’t have someone hold him or rub his head. Try to observe him when there is not a lot of activity in the house – try guiding him to a quiet room and let him settle down before you try to score him.  Don’t interact with him – he may respond by hiding his pain.

If your cat is grooming, eating, or vocalizing, wait until she is finished before assessing her. If sleeping, wait until she is awake. 

practice telling if a cat is painful


Using the FGS can be challenging but it can help you decide sometimes if your cat needs veterinary treatment. Practice observing cats that are painful or not painful to give yourself a mental map of the cat’s face and demeanor.

  1. Go to  felinegrimacescale.com, and download the FGS manual.
  2. Using the FGS manual, practice your skills with the series of 11 cat photos on the website.
  3. Compare your results with those of the researchers.

 

Other indications that your cat is painful


  • she is hiding or you find her in a place she usually does not frequent
  • she is more subdued than usual
  • there is a decrease in appetite and activity

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You’ve had a tough day at work – you couldn’t keep anyone happy. You arrive home and your cat is there at the door as you come in. He rubs around your legs and stands up to bump your hand with his head. Of course, he is there for his dinner but afterwards, he will snuggle up to you on the sofa to watch some TV – at least, he seems happy with you!

Your relationship with your cat is more than just providing him with food and a warm place to sleep – it is also about the comfort you get from him when you are stressed. A recent study authored by Mauro Ines and colleagues looked at the different types of relationships that exist between cats and their people. They looked at the cat-owner relationship in terms of attachment AND social support.

cat-owner relationship


attachment


Attachment refers to an emotional bond between two individuals where each feels more secure  and comforted when with the other.

We not only provide our cats with food and shelter but also security and comfort. As a consequence, our cats are ATTACHED to us and stay close to us.

social support


Social Support refers to a network of family and friends that you can turn to when you are stressed or feeling isolated and lonely.

In terms of social support, our cats make us feel needed because they need us to care for them. They give us a break from the complexities of interacting with people – they are available, not judgmental or unpredictable.

Mauro Ines’ research team conducted an extensive survey of cat owners. After the dust cleared, there were 3994 “reliable” responses for statistical analysis.

The study used four categories to evaluate cat-owner relationships:

  1. The Owner’s emotional investment in the cat
  2. The cat’s acceptance of people other than the Owner
  3. The cat’s need to be close to the Owner
  4. How friendly the cat was toward the Owner

Statistical analysis of the surveys revealed 5 distinct cat-owner relationships. 

In three of these relationships (52% of the surveys), owners have a low level of emotional investment in their cats. The cats and owners do not seem to be very attached nor do they offer each other much social support.

  1. “Open”
    • Owner has a “neutral” emotional investment in the cat
    • The cat typically goes outdoors
    • The cat is friendly to people in general
    • Cat has some affiliation with the owner.
    • These cats do not seek out owners when distressed.
  2. “Remote”
    • Owner has a low level of emotional investment in the cat
    • Owner does not view the cat as part of the family.
    • The cat is often be sociable with people other than the Owner
    • The cat does not seek out the Owner when distressed.
  3. “Casual”
    • Owner has a low level of emotional investment
    • The cat is sociable and friendly with other people
    • Little evidence that the cat discriminates the Owner from other people
    • These cats may visit other households in the neighborhood

 

About 45% of the surveys came from Owners with a high emotional investment in their cats.  These Owners scored high on items like “my cat will often lick my hands or face”.  These cats and owners have stronger relationships, both in terms of attachment and social support.

  1. “Co-dependent”
    • These cats prefer to be close to their owners
    • These cats are wary of people other than the Owner
    • Usually a single-person household
    • The cat is indoor-only
    • Owner and cat play together frequently
  2. “Friendship”
    • Usually a multi-cat home
    • These cats are often friendly with people other than the Owner
    • These cats like to be near the Owner but are not “clingy”
    • The Owner and cats have a “friendly” relationship but can function independently of each other.

A study like the one described above can have inherent biases that can limit its value in describing cat owners in general.  For instance, the bulk of the survey responses came from women in the UK (66%). Only 10% of the responses came from US residents.  In the UK, it is common for cats to have outdoor access (90%), whereas in the US, it is estimated that upward of 65% of pet cats are primarily indoors.  If we were to survey cat owners in the US, would we find a greater percentage of “co-dependent” relationships? Would we find more emotionally invested owners with indoor-only cats?

This study, while interesting, is certainly not the last word in how cats bond with their people. However, it does suggest that the cat-human relationship is more than a simple caregiver- dependent relationship.

Why do a study like this? 


One of the leading reasons why cats are relinquished to animal shelters is behavior problems. A better understanding of the cat-owner relationship could help resolve or possibly avoid such problem behaviors, keeping the cat in his home and improving the welfare of both cat and owner.

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Friendly cat greeting a human

 

You’re watching TV with your cat on your lap, absentmindedly stroking her. Suddenly, out of the blue, she swats you and jumps down. You rub your hand and wonder, “What was that all about?”

There are few practical guidelines for interacting with cats. A research team conducted a study at the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in the UK to remedy this. The study tested a simple set of Human-Cat Interaction (HCI) guidelines that aim to make cats more  comfortable when they are interacting with us.

These practical guidelines for interacting with cats follow the acronym CAT (easy to remember). Here they are!

C is for Choice and Control
A is for Attention
T is for Touch

 

choice and control…


Our cats’ ancestors were solitary hunters. They had to look out for themselves – if they were injured, they could not hunt; no hunting meant no food.

Cats are accomplished hunters but they are also prey for larger predators, such as coyotes. Consequently, cats are “control freaks” – to survive, they need to be in control of their interactions with their environment.

Allow a cat to CHOOSE whether or not to interact with you.

  • If you can, get on the cat’s level, offer your hand, and allow him to approach you.
  • If the cat wants to be touched, she will rub against your hand. If she doesn’t lean into your hand, don’t pet her.
  • Allow the cat to move away from you if he chooses; don’t follow him if he leaves.
  • Allow the cat to control how much you stroke her. When stroking her, pause every 3–5 sec to see if she wants to continue – does she rub against you to ask for more? If not, let her take a break.

Attention….


Pay attention to the cat’s body language and behavior. The following signals indicate that the cat is done interacting with you.

  • She turns her head or moves away from you.
  • His ears become flattened or rotate backwards.
  • She shakes her head.
  • The fur on his back “ripples”.
  • She licks her nose.
  • He becomes still, and stops purring or rubbing against you.
  • She sharply turns her head to face you or your hand.
  • He suddenly starts grooming himself but only for a few seconds at a time.
  • Her tail starts switching back and forth rapidly; usually the tail is horizontal or on the ground.

touch…


Think about where you are touching the cat.

  • A friendly cat prefers to be touched at the base of his ears, around his cheeks, and under his chin.
  • AVOID the base of her tail and tummy.
  • If you touch the cat’s back, flank, legs, or tail–watch his body language (see above) to see if he is comfortable with this.

Trying out the practical guidelines for interacting with cats


In the Battersea study, testing was conducted in 2 sessions: a “control” session and a second session after the human participant watched a 5 minute video demonstrating the CAT guidelines.

In each session, both control and post-video, the human participant visited with 3 cats, spending 5 minutes with each cat.

In the control session, the participant was instructed to remain seated in the cat’s room and interact with the cat as he or she usually would. The session was recorded by video.

After watching the instructional video, the participant would visit with 3 more cats as before, except following the CAT guidelines.

A total of 535 observations were made.
For each observation, cat behavior and posture was assessed and rated; the human participants were scored on how closely they followed the CAT guidelines.

Did the practical guidelines for interacting with cats work?


Before CAT instruction:
Cats in the control visits displayed more instances of human-directed aggression and more behaviors associated with conflict than cats in the post-education visits.

After CAT instruction:
The human participants in the study started following the CAT guidelines and the cats displayed more friendly and positive behaviors than in the control visits.

So, back to the cat on your lap in front of the TV. She became tired of being petted and may have indicated this by flattening her ears and turning her head to give you a meaningful look but you were not paying attention!

  • Let her Control the stroking (“ask” if she wants to continue)
  • Pay Attention to her body language (rippling skin? twitching tail? “airplane” ears?)
  • Touch her where she is comfortable being touched; if in doubt, stick with the base of the ears, the cheeks, and under the chin.

postscript


If you need to handle your cat and she’s not having it, try to make it worthwhile for her. Offer her a treat or a toy to put her in a positive emotional state.

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Clicker training your cat pairs the sound of the clicker, a small handheld gadget, with a treat or some other thing the cat likes. When the cat hears the click, he knows that a treat or something good is on its way. If the cat sits when he hears the word “sit” and hears a click as he sits, he will look for his expected reward. If he receives the reward, he will be more likely to “sit” next time upon command.

At the core of clicker training your cat are two learning processes: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Let’s look at these two ways of learning.

Classical Conditioning – An involuntary response is associated with a stimulus


Pavlov meme
During the 1890’s, a Russian scientist, Ivan Pavlov was studying digestion in dogs, measuring the amount of saliva produced by a group of dogs presented with meat.

Pavlov noticed that:

  • the dogs would drool when food was placed in front of them
  • they would also drool before they received the meat, when they heard the footsteps of the assistant bringing the meat.

This started a series of experiments using lights, metronomes and, of course, bells to stimulate the drooling.  Pavlov had discovered the learning process that we now call “classical conditioning”, where an involuntary response like salivating is associated with a stimulus, the ringing of a bell.

Operant conditioning – A voluntary behavior is associated with aN outcome


Likewise, snapping the lid off a can of cat food can help call the kitties to dinner. The dogs connected the ringing of the bell with food; your cats may be accustomed or conditioned to associate the sound of  the can opening with being fed. This is another example of “classical conditioning”.

Your cat has heard the can opening. Now, he must decide whether he is going to come for dinner. Most of the time, he makes the decision to come when “called”, anticipating a dinner of cat food. This “voluntary” response is the learning process called operant conditioning – the cat has control over whether he comes or not.

Folks who study behavior have identified 4 different scenarios in operant learning: 2 that increase the likelihood that the behavior being trained will be repeated and 2 that decrease the likelihood that the behavior is repeated.

operant conditioning – 4 scenarios


INCREASE THE BEHAVIOR


POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT


Treats to reward cats

ADD a good outcome – the cat is likely to perform the behavior again.

We ask the cat to “sit” and when he sits, we give him a tasty treat. We REWARD the behavior of sitting.

DECREASE THE BEHAVIOR


POSITIVE PUNISHMENT


cat on counter

ADD something unpleasant to discourage a behavior.

Your kitty jumps up on the counter and you spray her with water. She jumps down. You have added an unpleasant spray of water (punishment) to getting up on the counter.

negative reinforcement


TAKE AWAY something unpleasant- the cat is likely to do what stops what’s unpleasant.

You are trying to trim your cat’s nails but the moment you touch her foot with the clippers, she growls and hisses and you stop. It is likely next time, she will growl and hiss to stop you from trimming her nails. You are reinforcing her behavior of hissing and growling at nail trims by “removing” the unpleasant nail trim.

negative punishment


TAKE AWAY something the cat likes to discourage a behavior.

Your cat wakes you up at night to be petted. You put her outside the bedroom and close the door. You are removing the opportunity for some stroking that your cat enjoys with the hope that your cat will not wake you up in the future.

THE PROBLEM WITH positive PUNISHMENT

  • It is difficult to get the timing right – you must spray the cat as she is jumping on the counter otherwise she may associate something else (you) with the spray of water
  • Punishment does not remove a behavior.  There is an immediate effect – kitty jumps off the counter – but she may continue to jump on the counter if you are NOT there to spray her. 
  • Devices like a SSSCAT (a motion-activated spray system) may keep her off the counter as long as they are working.  A concern with these devices is injury if the cat is startled and falls off the counter.
  • Punishment can put the cat into an anxious, fearful state, anticipating a consequence (punishment) the cat does not understand. 

“Classical” conditioning and “operant” conditioning with positive reinforcement form the core of clicker training your cat.

  • The cat learns to associate the “click” of the clicker with food or something he values.
  • He will choose to perform a behavior, like sitting upon command, anticipating a treat.

Positive reinforcement is the most successful training technique because the cat will not be fearful or anxious but will be in a positive emotional state, ready to learn – after all, something good will happen!

 

A POSTSCRIPT


What to try if your cat hates nail trims

Positive reinforcement!

  1. Start by handling her feet and giving her a treat for each paw you pick up.
  2. Move on to touching her feet with the nail clippers, and give her treats for each paw.
  3. Work up to trimming a few claws at a time, and of course, reward her!

Counter Surfing

With kitchen counters, the drive to seek food is strong and difficult for a cat to suppress. Also, cats instinctively, “go for the high ground”, especially if they are avoiding something they are leery of.

  1. Is your cat jumping on the counter to get food or avoid the dog and the toddler? You may need to control the dog or toddler.
  2. Keep food off the counters unless you are preparing it.
  3. Find a place (preferably high) for kitty to sit while you are working at the counter and reward him for sitting there.
  4. Sometimes, using “aversives”, things cats don’t like, may help. For example, using a non-toxic citrus spray on the counter or using an upside-down carpet runner (with the “spikes” facing up) may deter jumping up on the counter.
  5. If your cat is driving you crazy or may get hurt, put him in a safe place with all his resources while you prepare food.

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The other day, a kitten came into the clinic for his 4 month exam and vaccines. He was a ball of energy and wanted to climb up me so I took out a toy from one of the cabinet drawers to play with him. This toy was a small wand with bells and feathers on it. I whisked the trailing feathers on the floor by him.

Poor fellow – the toy must have startled and scared him – he puffed up and hissed. I put the toy on the floor for him to examine – he approached tentatively, smelled the feathers and hissed again, so I put the toy away.

Later, when the doctor came into to do his examination, I pulled the toy out of the cabinet to show her; the kitten saw it and hissed again.

Why do cats hiss? What does it mean?


Domestic cats are capable of making at least 21 discrete vocalizations; our cats use these sounds to communicate with us – each cat has his/her own repertoire of sounds to tell us what he/she wants or feels.

How the hiss is made


The hiss is a long forceful exhalation made with the mouth open and the teeth bared. A hiss is a hiss – hisses among cats sound similar – it is a “voiceless” communication. The hiss can be made in a number of situations – we must look to the context and body language to interpret it.

When do cats hiss?


  • when they are afraid: Although we may associate hissing with anger and aggression, cats are more likely to hiss when they are afraid; it is usually the defensive cat who hisses in the cat fight. When accompanied by the fur standing on end, dilated pupils, and a cringing posture, the message is “I am afraid; leave me alone. I will defend myself if I have to.”
  • when they are startled – the “fight or flight” response is triggered; fur may be standing on end while the cat assesses the situation – is there danger?
  • when they are in pain – a hiss might mean don’t touch my “ouchy” spot – it hurts!
  • when they are frustrated/displeased – a cat may hiss when things are not going his way. My cat, Gus, will hiss when waiting for dinner (if service is slow!) or when another cat gets in his way. These hisses tend to be short and are not accompanied by fur on end, dilated pupils or change in posture.

Other thoughts on why cats hiss


  • Some experts think that cats hiss to mimic a snake and scare off attackers. Early mammals evolved in a landscape dominated by reptiles, which could be deadly. Evolutionarily, the hiss is coupled with fear for many mammals.  Perhaps, cats are taking advantage of this connection of the hiss with fear.
  • While we may hush a baby to soothe it or shush someone to keep them quiet, your cat may not interpret these sounds the same way. Instead, shhh and hush may sound like a hiss to her, perhaps triggering a fearful/anxious response.

Back to our kitten friend, his initial hiss with his fur puffed up was due to being startled, with the accompanying rush of adrenalin as he did not know if this toy was dangerous.

When the kitten smelled the toy, he hissed again but without fear (no puffy fur) – perhaps he could smell other cats on this toy and this made him a little anxious (are these other cats who played with this toy friendly?)

He hissed again on seeing the toy from across the exam room, letting us know he did NOT like that toy!

In the video below, Gus and Marley are waiting for treats. Gus swats Marley and then gives a long hiss. His body posture is not tense, although he turns to the side to look more threatening; his fur is not puffed up. He is warning Marley to keep his distance (“and don’t even think of going for my treats!”)

Humans may curse or swear when they are annoyed, startled, excited, or in pain – cats, on the other hand, hiss. The hiss tells us the cat is experiencing a negative emotion.  Before handling him, look to his body language to see if he is afraid, reacting to a painful stimulus or merely annoyed.

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