Education about Cats may Reduce Feline Behaviour Problems

Behavioural advice for people with a new kitten is linked to a better-behaved pet at 1 year old.

A tabby cat fast asleep on a chair

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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.

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?

P.S. Sign up now to get my free guide, Seven Secrets to a Happy Cat and learn how to have a better relationship with your pet. 

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

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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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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  1. I would have liked to know the importance of enriching (and how) the environment of my cats. I have two indoor cats. Also I would have liked to know beforehand how to train them. I have read extensively and am happy to see that I am making progress, but there is a big difference in having cats that can roam the garden (which is what I am used to from my childhood) and having cats in an apartment. Cats are not easy pets, but they are wonderful pets and very loving and loyal when treated right.

  2. I'd have liked to know how to play with a cat, as I was raised by Yorkshire terriers and initially approached my partner's cat as if she were a dog, when I first started dating him. She put me right very fast! Then I sat down and watched lots of My Cat From Hell and learned how to behave around cats, and that made a huge difference. Two and a half years on, we all live together between his flat and mine, and she considers me her human just as much as he is. Switching to four small meals instead of two meals a day helped, in particular with how early she starts nagging us for breakfast. We now have cat trees in both our flats, cat shelves, lots of cat toys, and when my disability permits, we walk her on a harness and lead in local parks. She's a much happier kitty. She still attacks our ankles at times, though.

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  3. Recently I took a kitten and now actively studying his behavior. Thank you very much for such an interesting article. Now I know how to find a common language with a cat


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