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

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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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).

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. Photo shows 2 cats cuddling
Photo: Mikhail Olvkainie; top, john austin. Both Shutterstock

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. 

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!"

Where does your cat sleep at night?

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, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

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

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