17 February 2016

Most Owners Say Cats Are Part Of The Family

Most cat owners are confident in their ability to look after their pet, but feline welfare could be better in some respects.

A survey of how people care for their cats, like this beautiful kitten

New research by Tiffani Howell (La Trobe University) et al investigates how people care for their cats. A representative survey of pet owners in the Australian state of Victoria included questions from feeding and sleeping arrangements to how much cats cost over their lifetime.

In general, Victorian cat owners appear to be meeting their cat’s welfare needs, with a few areas for improvement,” says Dr. Tiffani Howell. “For instance, nearly half of owners allow their cat to roam free outdoors, which could lead to injuries. 

“Female owners report higher levels of satisfaction with their cat’s behaviour, and fewer behavioural problems, than male owners. Older owners were less likely to have irretrievably lost a cat than younger owners, but they report more behavioural problems.”

There are some fascinating facts in the survey. Most people are confident they are able to look after their cat (94%) and consider the cat to be part of the family (89%). And most owners significantly underestimate the lifetime cost of caring for him or her.

A third of cats (34%) sleep on their owner’s bed at night, with 22% on other furniture and 20% on their own cat bed. Cats like to have places that are high up, and 94% of them did. 

61% of cats are said by their owners to exercise themselves while 14% of cats apparently get no exercise.  81% of owners think their cat is the right weight. Since vets report a higher proportion of overweight and obese cats, it seems likely some owners do not realize their pet is overweight.

The number of cats with no toys (11%) suggests some may be missing out on important enrichment activities, but most cats had over three (52%) or 1 - 3 (31%) interactions with their owner each day.

Only 17% of cats spent most of their time outside, with 45% mostly indoors and the remainder splitting their time. 

Although annual vet visits are recommended, 26% of cats had not been to the vet in the last year and 6% had never been to the vet. The numbers who were not vaccinated in the last year (24%) or ever (5%) almost mirror this. 3% of cats had never been checked for external or internal parasites, and some had not been checked in the last year (10% and 13%, respectively).

Two cats cuddling together. Results of a survey into how people care for their cats, including how often they go to the vet, play with their owner, and litter tray issues.

When people had two or more cats, 58% said they only had one litter tray, which is a concern since the standard advice is to have one tray per cat plus one extra.

13% of owners said it was more difficult than they expected to take care of their cat, but only 3% were dissatisfied with their cat’s behaviour, and 92% were satisfied or very satisfied. 

The most common behaviour problem was fear of loud noises, people or animals (18% of cats). 

Of particular interest to readers of this blog is where people turn for information if they need it. Since 87% of owners had never needed to, these answers are mostly hypothetical, but 66% would ask their vet, 44% would consult the internet and 24% would ask friends or family.

One worrying finding is that 10% said they had lost a cat (and not been able to find it) in the previous 5 years. At the same time, 15% of people had acquired their cat by finding it or taking in a stray.

The full report is packed with information about the lives of cats, including how often litter trays are scooped (once a day for 26% of cats), how many are fed table scraps (11%), and how many were obtained for free (51%).

448 pet cat owners took part in the study. It was part of a wider survey of pet-keeping practices; amongst the group as a whole, 79% live in Greater Melbourne, 53% are married and 46% work full-time.  Most of the cats are domestic shorthairs (also known as moggies), and almost all are spayed or neutered.

The survey is especially useful because the sample is representative of the people of Victoria. Other studies with convenience samples may not reflect the population as a whole, because some people – e.g. with a particularly strong interest in cats, or whose cats have problem behaviours – might be more likely to reply than others. The results will help in planning animal welfare campaigns.

If your cat is stressed at the vet, see less stress at the vet for dogs and cats for some tips. 

Where does your cat sleep at night?

Howell, T., Mornement, K., & Bennett, P. (2016). Pet cat management practices among a representative sample of owners in Victoria, Australia Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 11, 42-49 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.10.006
Photos: john austin (top) and Mikhail Olykainen (both Shutterstock.com).
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03 February 2016

Homeless Youth With Pets Are Less Depressed Than Those Without

A survey of homeless youth finds that pets bring benefits – and difficulties.

Close-up of a sad dog's face with his head on his paws

23% of homeless youth have pets, according to research by Harmony Rhoades et al (University of Southern California). The team surveyed 398 homeless youth at two drop-in centres in Los Angeles. While previous studies have shown that pets can be very important to homeless young people, this is the first quantitative study to look at pet ownership, mental health, and the use of services amongst this group.

88% of the young people in the study had attended the drop-in for food during the previous month. Other services they had used included clothes (69%), job help (52%), housing (49%) and health services (47%). Of those with pets, dogs were most common (53%) followed by cats (22%). Other pets included a hamster, rat, chinchilla and iguana. 

“Companion animals provide emotional support and represent important, loving relationships in the lives of many homeless youth,” say the authors. 

Pet owners had lower scores for loneliness and depression, and reported many benefits to having a pet. 85% agreed that “my pet keeps me company,” 79% said the pet “makes me feel loved,” and 73% said the pet “makes me feel safe.” 

There was no difference in having been hurt or threatened on the street, but those with pets were more likely to report having carried a weapon. There were also no differences in being hit or seeing someone be hit at home. However, amongst those who were living with family, there was a trend for those with pets to be more likely to experience or witness violence in the home. This suggests some young people may be staying in a violent situation because it’s better for their pet.

The biggest difficulty for those with pets was that half of them (49%) said it was harder for them to stay at a shelter. Most shelters do not allow pets. Although those with and without pets were equally likely to be living on the street, only 4% of those with pets were staying in a shelter or housing program, compared to 17% of those without pets.

Other problems included it being tricky to find housing (16%) and hard to see a doctor (11%). Those with pets were less likely than those without to have accessed some services (housing and job help) but not others (including food, clothes and health services).

While 60% said they made sure their pets ate before them, a few reported difficulties getting enough food for their pet (11%) and almost a quarter (23%) agreed that “strangers give me a hard time for having a pet.” Most of them did not find it easy to see a vet. These findings show that programs that provide pet food and vet care are an important service for homeless youth.

Homelessness includes a range of circumstances. 49% of the participants in this study were living directly on the street and 14% were in a shelter or program for the homeless. Of the other housing situations, some were staying with family, friends, or a romantic partner. 

Many of them had experienced violence; 55% reported being hurt badly in a fight in the past year, and 46% had been hit at home.

Against this backdrop, the fact so many said their pets protected them and helped them feel safe and loved suggests pets are playing an important role. The authors say, “Housing and other services must be sensitive to the needs of homeless youth with pets.”

Rhoades, H., Winetrobe, H., & Rice, E. (2014). Pet Ownership Among Homeless Youth: Associations with Mental Health, Service Utilization and Housing Status Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 46 (2), 237-244 DOI: 10.1007/s10578-014-0463-5

Photo: Brad Steels / Shutterstock.com

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