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Attention Cat Owners: Your Pet Wants You, Not More Food!

on April 5, 2017
Posted in Behavior Management

Cats have long been perceived as selfish, indifferent and difficult to train. Even a great deal of cat owners apparently believe their pets don’t have much interest in human interaction and would mostly prefer to be left alone with their favorite treats.

But the results of a new study suggest that cats actually love playing with their owners more than food, toys, and the company of other cats.

Researchers led by Kristyn Vitale Shreve, a Ph.D student at Oregon State University, enlisted 55 cats, 23 of which were pets while the others were from animal shelters. Each cat was given three choices of food, toys, scents and types of human interaction, including talking, petting, or playing with someone holding a GoCat Da Bird feather toy. The cats were then placed in solitary confinement for two and a half hours before undergoing what is known as “free operant preference assessment.”

This experimental technique, which had never been used on cats, consists of putting participants in a room with various objects/activities at their disposal. In this case, the cats were placed in the center of an “X” and surrounded with their favorites from each of the four categories (food, toys, scents and human interaction).

Much to the dismay of countless dog lovers, half of the cats chose human interaction and spent the majority of their time with a person seated at one end of the “X.” Food came in second, followed by toys, and then scent, which was chosen by just one, unique feline who truly enjoys the smell of catnip. The other scents used by the researchers were gerbil and another cat.

The study wasn’t very big and needs to replicated with a larger sample size in order to be validated but current and potential cat owners should take note of the results. Research conducted in 2015 found that approximately 58% of US cats are overweight, meaning they weigh more than 20% of their own body weight. The pet obesity epidemic is largely attributed to owners overfeeding their animals and simply not paying enough attention to them. Without proper attention, pets do not receive exercise and their obesity goes unnoticed.

The new findings should remind cat owners that their pets love interacting with them, likely even more than food or left to themselves. It’s also much easier for an owner notice when his or her cat is obese if more time is being devoted to interaction.

Dennis Turner, director of the Institute for Applied Ethology and Animal Psychology in Switzerland, told the Washington Post that he found the results of the study “important” and “gratifying.” This is because they support research he compiled about 20 years ago that concluded that an abundance of food isn’t sufficient for establishing a relationship with a cat. “It takes more than that, talking with or stroking the animal,” he said via email. Cat owners looking to deepen their connection with their pets should turn to interaction rather than treats, since it’s the former that was most attractive to the participants in the study.

Another major takeaway of the study is the fact that it was able to take place at all. There aren’t many documented studies on cat behavior because cats aren’t as cooperative as dogs and are notoriously stubborn. But Vitale Shruve says cats would be more cooperative for research if the experiments were not so similar to those created for dogs. “If you’re having trouble measuring behavior in the species, it’s probably not the species that’s the problem. It’s the methodology,” she told the Washington Post. Previous studies, for example, likely used food to get cats to cooperate. Vitale Shruve’s study shows that some cats might respond better to human interaction and can in fact be trained to participate in cognitive tests.

Increasing interaction with your cat, as opposed to offering treats, might just be the key to solving problems with behavior as well as weight.

Read also: Think Pet Is Sick? How To Tell

Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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