Education about Cats may Reduce Feline Behaviour Problems

When people with a kitten are given behavioural advice, their pet is better-behaved at 1 year old.

A tabby cat fast asleep on a chair

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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A new pet can be hard work, and if people don’t fully understand the needs of their animals, behaviour problems can result. A new study investigates whether education for owners at their first vet appointment is the answer. 

People with a new kitten (3 months old) were given 25 minutes of standardized advice on caring for cats. The study, by Angelo Gazzano et al (University of Pisa) compared the behaviour of these cats at just over 1 year old with that of a control group where no behavioural advice was given.

The authors say, “providing simple, relatively short advice at the very beginning of a kitten-owner relationship is not only important in pleasing the owners, protecting cat welfare, and [the] cat-owner relationship but also in offering a complete service to the owners.” 

The education was given by a vet behaviourist and took 25 minutes. It included advice on cat behaviour, such as the need to habituate kittens to social and non-social stimuli and provide environmental enrichment, as well as advice on how to train and manage a cat, including litter box issues and getting the cat used to being handled as in a vet consult.

91 cats took part in the study; 45 whose owners received the behavioural advice, and 46 cats in a control group. 

For the group given behavioural advice, only 2 owners consulted someone about a behaviour problem (one asked the breeder and another asked a veterinary behaviourist). In the control group, 21 cat owners asked for advice about their cat’s behaviour: of these, 43% asked their vet, 19% asked a vet behaviourist, and 10% consulted the internet or scientific literature.

This is reflected in people’s complaints about their cat. People in the no-advice group were much more likely to have at least one complaint about their cat’s behaviour (46%) compared to those in the advice group (4%).

One of the most striking differences is in how people fed their cat. In the no-advice group, 39% fed when the cat asked to be fed, 30% fed their cat twice a day and 30% fed three or more times a day. However, in the advice group, 71% of people fed three or more times a day, suggesting they had taken the vet behaviourist’s advice on board. (Domestic cats prefer several small meals a day - see International Cat Care). 

How to prevent feline behavior problems with information about cats
Photo: IrynaBu; top, Acon Cheng (both

In the advice group, cats were more likely to only go on some furniture or just on the furniture they were allowed on. In the no-advice group, cats were more likely to climb curtains. There were no differences in scratching furniture. “Excessive vocalization” was more common in the no-advice group. 

The cats in the advice group were more tolerant of being touched. Although both groups of cats were sociable, the no-advice group were more likely to seek physical contact when the owner was on the bed or sofa. Cats in the behavioural advice group were more likely to greet the owner when they came home. Although there were no differences in kneading or licking, cats in the advice group were reported to rub more often on their owner, and to seek physical contact more often. (See: why does your cat rub their head on you?).

One potential confound is that cats in the behavioural advice group were more likely to be allowed outdoors. This could make a difference, because indoors-only cats are more likely to get bored and lack environmental enrichment, and hence may be more likely to have behaviour problems. It’s possible the behavioural advice prompted people to allow their cats time outdoors, especially since the study was in Italy where outdoor cats are common, but we don’t know.

It would be nice to know whether the behavioural advice prompted people to behave differently (aside from the feeding regime). For example, did it mean people were more likely to buy scratching posts, pay attention to provision of litter trays, and spend more time playing with their cat? Were they more understanding of any feline indiscretions? This would be a great topic for follow-up research.

These results are interesting and suggest that providing information to new cat owners is beneficial, which is good news for those who hope to improve animal welfare through education.

What advice do you wish you had been given before you got a cat?

If you liked this post, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Dr. Sarah Ellis says, "Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!"

*Full disclosure: one of my cats climbs the bedroom curtains. She is allowed.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Gazzano, A., Bianchi, L., Campa, S., & Mariti, C. (2015). The prevention of undesirable behaviors in cats: Effectiveness of veterinary behaviorists' advice given to kitten owners Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.07.042

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