Study: Even Experienced Caretakers Give Cats ‘Unwelcome Affection’

By chance, one of the first things I saw Tuesday in my post-wake-up browsing was a short video of three guys standing in a triangle formation, each of them with a puppy. A drum recording began, and the men began drumming an overturned pot in the middle with the puppies’ paws.

The dogs, of course, had no idea what was going on. They were confused and stressed. Then I saw this from the official TikTok page of Imperial Point Animal Hospital in Delray Beach, Florida:

That’s a veterinarian abusing a kitten.

It might not be overt abuse. She’s not hitting or screaming at the poor cat. But she’s taking a sentient being with its own feelings, likes and dislikes, comforts and discomforts, and using it as a toy for clicks and likes on social media.

I thought about that when I read the newest study from Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham, which looks at the way people interact with their cats and how their behavior may or may not align with what cats prefer and what they’re comfortable with.

Although Bud and I have a deep bond formed over more than seven years of spending time together, establishing trust, mutual respect and love, he would tear my face off if I did to him what the vet tech is doing to the kitten in the above video.

And you know what? He’d be justified, once he got over the shock and wondered if I’d been replaced with a doppleganger.

The UK study involved more than 100 felines at Battersea Dogs and Cats’ London cattery, with scientists recording interactions between humans and cats via a GoPro camera in a large pen where people can interact with cats one-on-one. There were 120 human participants of various ages and from different walks of life. Each person interacted with three cats separately.

Researchers looked at whether the cat or the human initiated interaction, where the human touched the cat, whether the human restrained the cat, and the cat’s response.

They also collected information on each human participant, such as how many cats they have at home and how long they’ve been caring for felines. Human participants rated themselves on how well they know cats and how well they take care of them.

They used a system that corresponds to the below image to grade physical affection. The image is mostly self-explanatory, but to be clear, the green areas are where cats like to be touched, the yellow areas are “meh,” and the red areas are no-go zones for most cats:

greenyellowredcatareas

In earlier studies, the team established what many cat caretakers know: Allowing cats to initiate physical interactions, going easier and lighter on petting, letting cats control how long the interactions last, and avoiding any kind of restraint are “best practices” for petting cats. They reaffirmed that scratching cats under the chin, rubbing their cheeks and forehead are “the best ways to increase their affection and reduce aggression.”

That might seem obvious, but in research there’s an important distinction between knowing something (or thinking you know it) and proving it with research. It’s important to prove it, and to forgo assumptions, to produce credible and repeatable experiments.

Animal behaviorist Lauren Finka, lead author on the new study, said although the above may seem like common knowledge among experienced caretakers, that’s not always true, and it’s not always reflected in their behavior.

“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 behavioral needs,” Finka said.

We should point out here that these are “best practices” for establishing a healthy, trusting relationship with cats, and taking their feelings into consideration. Lots of people might force their cats to do things without much push back, but that doesn’t mean the cat is happy. No one’s perfect, and there are always things we can learn about how to do better by our furry friends.

Finka also said she hopes people who run shelters and rescues take the research into consideration. That’s because some people run into the same problems I did: When you’ve never had a cat, and/or you don’t fit the profile of what people think a “cat person” is or should be, you could encounter resistance or skepticism from shelter staff.

One volunteer at an animal shelter asked me if I was adopting a kitten for my kids or girlfriend, because it didn’t occur to her that I’d want a cat. Some shelters require references from a veterinarian, which you can’t get if you’ve never had a pet before.

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

For us, it’s more confirmation of what we’ve always believed: The more you take your cat’s feelings into consideration, and treat the little one with the respect he or she deserves, the happier your cat and the deeper your bond will grow.

10 thoughts on “Study: Even Experienced Caretakers Give Cats ‘Unwelcome Affection’”

  1. I blame popular culture and Disney movies. OK, that was a little facetious but many people get their information from social media, movies and tv shows. How many of us “know” that a lion will be grateful when you pull the painful thorn out of his paw? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder if anyone’s ever studied the effects of anthropomorphism in media. One surprising bit of info: Apparently quite a few vegans and vegetarians were prompted to stop eating meat after watching the movie Babe, about a farm pig. A few of the actors went vegan/vegetarian as well.

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  2. Stepping back from overdoing it with my pets is what I call “benign neglect.” (It’s a term used in child psychology.) Just sort of let them roam around the house and jump up on my bed when they’re ready.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Seems like that’s the best course of action and one I take myself, aside from the occasional affectionate head scratch that lasts a second, or just extending my hand and letting His Grace walk over and rub his cheek or the top of his head against my fingers.

      A good indicator is when he passes me with tail up and brushes me with it.

      It makes perfect sense that cats wouldn’t want to be forced, or to be at the whim of someone who acts like they’re inanimate objects like fluffy pillows.

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  3. Grate post Buddy an Big Buddy!!!!
    BellaSita has had lovey-dovey catss who REELLY loved to bee stroked an petted an cuddled……
    When shee resckued ‘angel’ NYLABLUE shee leerned to let NYLABLUE to come to her an they got along fine.

    It has been a bit harder with mee as mee sendss out mixed signnallss….so BellaSita an mee are werkin on communycation….
    Wee doin MUCH bettur now!!!
    ***nose rubss*** BellaDharma

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My kitty is very good about letting me know when she does and doesn’t want pets. She’s very particular and only likes pets on her cheeks, head, and chin/under collar. She does love her morning pet times and will jump up on my lap for some as soon as I sit up in the morning.

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