What do cats want? Let’s ask them

October 17, 2017

When it comes to understanding cats, the greatest experts aren’t veterinarians, shelter workers, or cat owners. They’re the cats themselves. If only they could talk!

While science has yet to invent a cat-human universal translator, the authors of two recently-published journal articles got creative in designing studies that gave cats the opportunity to show us what they need and want. One provided cats with choices of how to spend their time in a free-choice environment providing enrichment and housing options, then measuring how much time the cats spent in each. The second measured the responses of both pet and shelter cats to a variety of stimuli including human interaction and food.

The first study, from the journal Behavioural Processes, was specifically designed to help shelters provide improved housing and enrichment options for cats in their care. The study housed individual shelter cats in plus-symbol-shaped chambers: four compartments leading off a central area, with at-will access to all the chambers. The chambers included an empty area, a hiding place, a prey-like toy, and a perching opportunity. The central area contained food, water, and a litter box.

What did they find? Probably to no one’s great suprise, cats spent the most time in the chamber with a hiding place — well over half their time. Cats didn’t spend any more time with the toy or in the chamber with the perch than in the empty control chamber. (The central area, which contained their litter box, food, and water, was not included in the comparison.)

While the evidence seems pretty clear that cats like to hide, the results of the study aren’t as straightforward as they might first seem, suggesting a need for future research. For example, the  cats might have been napping in the hiding place, reflecting the large amount of time cats spend sleeping rather than a preference for hiding. Were cats who had been owner-surrendered more likely than cats who had come in as strays to hang out in the central area or on a perch that gave them the first glimpse of the researchers coming to check on them? And will providing cats with the specific types of housing or enrichment used in the study actually result in an improvement in their health and welfare while in the shelter?

However, when considering the results, shelters should keept this side note from the study authors in mind (italics ours):

The use of the hiding compartment for considerably longer per day than the other options raises the question of whether a hiding opportunity is environmental enrichment at all. Some authors (e.g., Duncan and Olsson, 2001) contend that if a proposed environmental enrichment item alleviates a negative state rather than promoting a positive one, it should not be termed environmental enrichment, but rather an environmental requirement. These authors may contend that the much greater allocation of time to the hiding box may be evidence that not providing an opportunity for these individuals to hide is failing to cater to their basic needs.

The second study, also published in Behavioural Processes, looked at the preferences of cats in homes as well as shelter cats related to social interaction, food, scent, or toys. It was designed to look at the trainability of cats, using different stimuli that could later serve as a reward for performance. Those included a scent item that had been kept with the study author’s pet gerbils, another scent item from an unfamiliar cat, and catnip; interactions with the cat’s owner (for pet cats) or a researcher (for shelter cats), including both petting and talking; high-value foods including tuna and chicken, and a variety of toys.

So what do cats like best, at least under the study circumstances? First, there was no difference in the results from the pet cats and the shelter cats. Within the study parameters, cats are cats — and human interaction is king.

That’s right, by a big margin, cats’ favorite thing is us. In second place is food, with toys and scent items a very distant third and fourth. Or as the authors put it (italics ours):

Social interaction was the most-preferred stimulus category overall for the majority of cats followed by food (Fig. 3). While it has been suggested that cat sociality exists on a continuum, perhaps skewed toward independency (Potter and Mills, 2015), we have found that 50% of cats tested preferred interaction with the social stimulus even though they had a direct choice between social interaction with a human and their other most preferred stimuli from the three other stimulus categories. Therefore, the idea that cats have not been domesticated long enough to show preference toward human interaction is not supported by these data.

CatPawCage“Cats’ love of human interaction is one of the reasons we so strongly advocate for cat housing that lets cats ‘reach out and touch someone’ through bar fronted housing or openings in cage doors, rather than confining cats behind Plexiglas barriers as a means of disease control — which doesn’t work anyway,” said Dr. Kate Hurley, director of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program and co-founder of the Million Cat Challenge.

Another one of our favorite findings? The food was placed in a container that was supposed to prevent the cats from eating it all at once. The type of container was called “unsolvable” in the study description. The cats got into it anyway, forcing a design change. Cats one, science zero.

The complete studies are available free in their entirety at the links below:

1. J.J. Ellis, H. Stryhn, J. Spears, M.S. Cockram, Environmental enrichment choices of shelter cats, In Behavioural Processes, Volume 141, Part 3, 2017, Pages 291-296, ISSN 0376-6357, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2017.03.023.

2. Kristyn R. Vitale Shreve, Lindsay R. Mehrkam, Monique A.R. Udell, Social interaction, food, scent or toys? A formal assessment of domestic pet and shelter cat (Felis silvestris catus)preferences, In Behavioural Processes, Volume 141, Part 3, 2017, Pages 322-328, ISSN 0376-6357, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2017.03.016.


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