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The most experienced cat owners are giving their pets unwelcome affection, study suggests

Self-proclaimed ‘cat people’ might not always know what’s best for their pets when it comes to showing them affection, new research suggests – and it could affect their cat’s behaviour during interactions.

Earlier research by the team suggested letting cats choose when to be petted was important

Cat welfare scientists at Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham looked at how people’s personalities, demographics and previous experience with cats affected how they approached and interacted with them.

The study was a collaboration with Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, who supported and funded the research at their London cattery. The team was looking to see the extent to which participants engaged with cats in the ways that they are known to typically prefer, in terms of handling, petting and general interaction.

Previous research by members of the team suggested that during interactions, letting cats choose when to be petted, generally trying to touch them less, paying close attention to their behavioural reactions and body language and focusing touch primarily to the base of the cat’s ears, cheeks and under their chin are the best ways to increase their affection and reduce aggression.

In the new study, which involved NTU’s School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences, the researchers required 120 participants to spend five minutes in Battersea’s cattery environment interacting with three cats they did not know.

Participants were asked to let the cat come to them and not to follow it, but otherwise were encouraged to interact with the cats as they normally would at home for example.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that participants who subjectively rated themselves as more ‘knowledgeable and experienced’ with regards to cats were more likely to touch areas of the cat’s body they typically find uncomfortable, such as the base of the tail and the tummy.

Additionally, participants who reported having lived with greater numbers of cats and with cats for more years were less likely to give cats sufficient choice and control during interactions, touched cats more and in typically less preferred areas of their body such as their tail, legs and along their backs.

Participants also completed a widely-used questionnaire to assess personality and the extent to which owners fell within one of the five broad personality traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism and openness.

Older people and those scoring higher for the personality trait ‘Neuroticism’ tended to try to hold and restrain cats more, while extroverts were more likely to initiate contact with cats more and touch the areas of the cat’s body that are generally less preferred.

In contrast, participants scoring higher in ‘Agreeableness’ were less likely to touch the more sensitive areas of the cat’s body. People that reported having some formal work experience involving cats or other animals were also found to be more ‘cat friendly’ in their approaches to interactions, letting cats take control and being more sensitive to their needs.

The researchers highlight that people’s previous experiences, personalities and perceptions of their own skills can potentially have an important impact on the behaviour and wellbeing of cats and other domestic pets.

Lead researcher Dr Lauren Finka said: “Our findings suggest that certain characteristics we might assume would make someone good at interacting with cats – how knowledgeable they say they are, their cat ownership experiences and being older – should not always be considered as reliable indicators of a person’s  suitability to adopt certain cats, particularly those with specific handling or behavioural needs.

“The good news is, however, that we can use this information in a really positive way to develop targeted educational interventions to ensure that everyone is aware of the best ways to interact with cats to maximise their enjoyment from interactions with us. For example, Battersea recently developed an animation which demonstrates optimal ways we can behave around cats.

“Of course, every cat is an individual and many will have specific preferences for how they prefer to be interacted with. However, there are also some good general principles to follow in order to ensure every cat is as comfortable as possible and that their specific needs are being met.

“Importantly, within shelters, we should also avoid discriminating against potential adopters with no previous cat ownership experience, because with the right support, they may make fantastic cat guardians.”

The study, which also involved SRUC and the University of Edinburgh, is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) received the Queens Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2021 for cultural heritage science research. It is the second time that NTU has been bestowed the honour of receiving a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its research, the first being in 2015 for leading-edge research on the safety and security of global citizens.

    The Research Excellence Framework (2021) classed 83% of NTU’s research activity as either world-leading or internationally excellent. 86% of NTU’s research impact was assessed to be either world-leading or internationally excellent.

    NTU was awarded Outstanding Support for Students 2020 (Times Higher Education Awards). It was the University of the Year 2019 (Guardian University Awards, UK Social Mobility Awards), Modern University of the Year 2018 (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide) and University of the Year 2017 (Times Higher Education Awards).

    NTU is the 5th largest UK institution by student numbers, with over 33,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across five campuses. It has an international student population of 4,000 and an NTU community representing around 160 countries.

    In the past 15 years, NTU has invested £450 million in tools, technology and facilities.

    NTU is in the UK’s top 10 for number of applications and ranked first for accepted offers (2019 UCAS UG acceptance data) It is also among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    75% of NTU students go on to graduate-level employment or graduate-entry education / training within fifteen months of graduating (Guardian University Guide 2021).

    NTU is 4th globally (and 3rd in the UK) for sustainability in the 2021 UI Green Metric University World Rankings (out of more than 900 participating universities).

Published on 8 August 2022
  • Subject area: Animal, equine and wildlife
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences