Kristyn Shreve, a graduate research fellow in OSU’s Human-Animal Interaction Lab, or HAI Lab, loves cats. She plays with them, talks to them, and, most importantly, studies them. It turns out we know rather little about cat cognition. Science has a lot left to tell us about the best way to communicate with our feline friends, including whether or not they even consider us friends at all. And this is where the research at the HAI Lab comes in. A study they are currently conducting aims to shed some light on the ways in which cats and humans socialize with one another. Not only that, but as part of the study, free kitten-training classes are given, providing a foundation for communication between owners and cats. This is research that has not been done before, and, looking at the numbers, is sorely needed.
While pet cats outnumber their canine counterparts by almost 10 million, over 3.4 million cats are surrendered to US shelters every year. Of these 3.4 million cats, at least 27% are given up due to “behavioral issues” or “cat-owner incompatibility.”
“We just do it everywhere for puppies, Petco, PetSmart, dozens of trainers have training places to take your puppy—it’s something most people do,” said Shreve. “For cats, people either think they can’t do it, or it’s not necessary to do it.” However, in this case the numbers speak for themselves and beg the question, is there something we could be doing better?
House Calls and Lab Trials
I have never considered myself a “cat person.” The few occasions on which I was exposed to cats only reinforced the stereotypes in my head that cats are aloof, cats are destructive, and cats wake you up at 5 a.m. demanding food. Now, I have seen people who really seem to enjoy having cats. They truly love their cats, and claim their cats love them right back. My uncle would joke that since adopting his furry friends, they had done a wonderful job of training him—and that didn’t seem to bother him one bit. While the shared bond between human and animal seems like common sense when talking about dogs, many who don’t own a cat themselves (and some who do) may be hesitant to believe a cat can care. Unfortunately I was in that camp until I, like roughly 30 percent of American households today, found myself the voluntary owner of a pet cat. Now, studies like the one taking place at the HAI Lab are beginning to prove what many cat owners felt from the start—that indeed there is a bond between a cat and its owner.
Testing for evidence of a human-feline bond at the HAI Lab begins with a house call. A kitten is placed in a room with a stranger. The stranger sits inside a small circle and is inattentive to the kitten for two minutes. “We’re basically looking at how much time the cat spends in proximity to them within the circle, and if they’re in contact with the human or not,” said Shreve. After the first two minutes the human gets to show attention to the kitten in whatever way feels natural. More often than not, the kitten getting the attention spends more time in contact with the human. After that portion of the test, the stranger is swapped out for the kitten’s owner and the test is repeated. The goal is to show whether or not familiarity will influence a cat’s attitude toward a given person.
The next test brings the kittens into the lab at OSU. For two minutes the owner sits in the lab with the cat, showing attention if the cat comes within the proximity circle. Then the owner is asked to leave. “This is the one that people get sad about,” said Shreve. “A lot of time you hear [the kitten] crying, but you see a wide variety [of behaviors]. Some cats don’t care at all that the owner is gone, some cats cry the whole time. It’s a way of measuring the attachment style between the kitten and the owner, and that lets us see if the attachment style changes after the class experience or not.” Don’t get too sad—kitten and owner are reunited for a final two-minute sitting session before all is said and done.
The kittens are then given a cognitive bias test designed to see how optimistic or pessimistic the cat is. The kitten is placed in a room with two strangers on either side of a room. One plays with and gives attention to the kitten any time it comes near, the other ignores it completely. The session is repeated until the kitten readily approaches the friendly stranger, but avoids the inattentive one. A third stranger is then brought into the mix and sat in the middle of the room. The researchers look for how long it takes for the kitten to approach the new stranger. “An optimistic cat would approach right away thinking that person might reward them,” said Shreve.
Finally, the kittens are given a social referencing test. Humans use social referencing all the time with one another. By looking at the person standing next to us, we gauge their emotions and intentions and react accordingly. But can a cat pick up on human emotional cues? For this test the kittens are placed in a room with their owner and a small fan with streamers attached to it. It’s not necessarily meant to be scary, just unfamiliar. First the owner looks neutrally at the fan, the way I assume pretty much everyone looks at fans. In the second phase the owners are given a script. “It’s basically, ‘What a good fan! That’s such a nice fan! Don’t you like the fan?’” said Shreve, using the sing-song voice we all reserve for pet-talk. “It’s to let [the cat] know that this is something okay, it’s not scary. We see if the kittens adjust their behavior to the response, the emotional cues given by the owner.”
All of these tests have been performed before, but on other animals, humans, or even adult cats. This new study applies them to kittens, and then checks to see if the results change after a six-week kitten training course.
“Even without the scientific tests, with the training alone, we are seeing that they are able to be socialized outside of the home—even after 10 weeks, which is what a lot of people have said you can’t do,” said Shreve. The training alone is impressive. I’ve seen cats walking on leashes, responding to commands, and jumping nearly five feet into the air. After the classes, all these tests are re-administered and compared to the initial results. For owners who learn to communicate with their cat through training, it’s not unrealistic to think that the cat-owner bond would show up stronger in the tests.
“A lot of these ideas we have about [cats], they aren’t panning out, it’s not what we are seeing,” explained Shreve. We have become inundated with cat memes and kitten pictures to the point of madness and yet we hang on to the old stereotypes that cats are hedonistic, self-serving freeloaders. While there may be some truth there, Shreve and the HAI Lab are turning the cat’s untrainable reputation on its head. Bottom line, they are paving the way for a better human-animal future by decreasing the likelihood of pet surrendering and increasing the bond shared between pets and their owners.
So, if you and your kitten are interested in scientific progress, training, or even just strengthening the bond you share, you are encouraged to take part in the original research taking place at the HAI Lab. A fresh round of kitten classes and testing beings in July. If you and your kitten are interested, just email Kristyn Shreve at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Kyle Bunnell