Friday 12 August 2022

Scientists say that experienced cat owners don't pet their cats correctly

Scientists say that experienced cat owners don't pet their cats correctly but I believe that their study is flawed in a couple of areas which I discuss below. Although their overall conclusion as stated by Dr. Lauren Finka is probably correct. This is slightly tricky topic and I am sorry the article is not straightforward but I hope it is reasonably interesting.

There is a very lengthy report on the Scientific Reports website (largely unintelligible) which looked at how experienced cat owners pet cats. They found that some self-proclaimed "cat people" don't know how to pet their cats. They looked at a range of people types and assessed how they interacted and petted domestic cats. The study was carried out at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.

News media reports state that it was surprising to the researchers that the people who participated and self-rated themselves as having knowledge and experience of cats were more likely to touch areas of the cat's body that the researchers believed that cats found uncomfortable. They also found that people described as having a personality trait of neuroticism and older people tended to hold and restrain cats more (and incorrectly).

People who were extroverts were more likely to want to make contact with cats more and touch areas of the cat's body that were generally less preferred to be touched by the cat.

People with personalities scoring high in "agreeableness" were less likely to touch those parts of the cat's body that cats prefer not to be touched. So agreeable people did best. 

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."

Areas where a cat likes and dislikes to be petted according to scientists
Areas where a cat likes and dislikes to be petted according to scientists. They are incorrect as the base of the tail is an acceptable area from the cat's standpoint and they miss out areas such as behind the head and shoulders as areas where cats like to be petted. Image: the study.


It seems to me that the basic conclusion is that experienced cat people often don't pet cats properly. That might be true to a certain extent as experienced cat people can become a little arrogant about their knowledge and become complacent and careless about doing what their cat likes and not what they like.

I would like to comment further. Firstly, the researchers decided that domestic cats like to be petted around the face but not on the stomach and the base of the tail. I think they are wrong because the base of the tail is not out of bounds in my experience. The stomach is a sensitive area certainly but an experienced cat owner living with their cat for a long time can pet their cat's stomach.

Secondly, "cat people" who've lived with cats for a long time can pet their cats in a way which would not be allowed (by the cat) when petting a cat that did not live with them.

And this study entails experience cat people petting cats that are not their own. 

"Participants interacted separately with three unfamiliar cats from a healthy population of predominantly non-pedigree, neutered adult cats."

There is a difference between petting your cat, the cat with whom you have lived for many years, and petting a strange cat. You certainly have to be far gentler and let a strange cat lead the way. Perhaps this is the crux of the matter.

You can't impose your will on a cat you don't know (and sometimes with a cat you know!). Conversely, with a cat you've lived with for a long time, you both know each other and the cat knows what their owner will be doing to them. 

And they have learned to accept it. Even if is not entirely right and even if the things that the owner does might not be necessarily pleasant for the cat, they will accept it because within that context there are a lot of things that the cat will like.

The study is flawed in my opinion because very often scientists who do cat studies are not cat people. They rely on somebody else to give them some leads on cat behaviour but this isn't enough. And pure science can be too dry to assess the human-to-cat relationship properly.

For example, I can gently pet my cat's stomach. I can kiss his stomach. I certainly pet down his back and at the base of his tail. I flea comb the base of his tail. I also pet him around the face and the back of his head and shoulders.

This study does not highlight the shoulders and the back of the head as areas which they describe as "green" areas by which they mean those areas that a cat likes to be petted - see the image above.

The study is called "Investigation of humans individual differences as predictors of their animal interaction styles, focused on the domestic cat". 

I don't rate the study highly as useful although clearly a lot of effort has gone into it. It seems to be fundamentally flawed to me. 

What they've concluded is that experienced cat owners are sometimes not good at interacting with cats they don't know because they've let their belief that they know best get in the way of a good interaction. Experienced cat owners may tend to lose their way and do as they please rather than please their pet.

There may be one useful aspect of it which is this: when people become very used to interacting with cats, they can forget about what a cat likes and enjoys and instead do what they want to do. They become a bit careless and perhaps a bit arrogant about they are knowledge of cats. 

They think they can handle cat in the slightly disrespectful way or slightly too roughly. Perhaps familiarity breeds complacency. And if a cat owner is very familiar with cats, they can become complacent about a cat's requirements and their particular needs and likes and dislikes.

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