An Interview with Dr. Lauren Finka
Dr. Lauren Finka is a postdoctoral researcher in animal welfare at the University of Nottingham Trent in the U.K. Her specialization is in feline behavior, particularly in sheltered cats. Dr. Finka recently co-authored a research paper entitled “Providing Humans With Practical, Best Practice Handling Guidelines During Human-Cat Interactions Increases Cats’ Affiliative Behaviour and Reduces Aggression and Signs of Conflict” in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.1 We asked her about her research and the importance of scientific literacy for people working with cats in homes and shelters.
How did you get interested in what you’re working on now?
I grew up living with various family cats, so I think I always considered myself to be a “cat person.” During my years as an undergraduate, I started volunteering at a local cattery and after graduating worked there full time. However, I still felt like l had so much yet to learn and that my enthusiasm for cats and experiences growing up with them weren’t sufficient for me to be able to help cats in the way that I wanted to. This led to me pursuing a PhD focusing on assessing cats’ temperaments in the cattery environment and it was at this point that I realised how little I really understood about them!
During my PhD, I spent many, many hours coding their behaviour from video footage and also working with cats in rehoming centre environments. These experiences enabled me to learn so much about cats’ behaviour and body language and how we should be managing them to optimise their wellbeing. At this point I was certain that this is what I wanted to do as a career: to incorporate applied academic research with consultancy and science communication. One of the ways I felt that we could very quickly improve cats’ comfort and enjoyment around people was to focus on improving our abilities to respond appropriately to their behaviour and to stroke them in ways that they are innately likely to prefer. This led me to undertake the current project.
Can you summarize your paper on best practices for handling cats? What did you do to gather data, what were some challenges, what was your hypothesis, and what did you find?
The aim of the paper was to test the efficacy of a set of simple best practice “CAT” guidelines provided to participants when interacting with cats. These guidelines focus on providing the cat with choice and control (C), paying attention (A) to their behaviour and body language, and limiting touch (T) mostly to their facial regions (unless the cat shows clear signs of enjoying other areas being touched).
We knew anecdotally that these guidelines were having really positive impacts on the behaviour and wellbeing of cats within the cattery when applied by cattery staff, but we wanted to be able to demonstrate this scientifically, and with naïve members of the public who had had no previous training. One of the biggest challenges was to ensure the wellbeing of both cats and participants at all times during the study, which meant withdrawing any cats that didn’t seem comfortable in the proximity of people, or that had the potential to cause injury to people. Essentially this meant removing most of the cats that would likely benefit most from people applying the handling guidelines, but luckily we still found that they had a positive impact on the majority of the remaining study cats!
We collected data from 120 members of the public and 100 cats located within the cattery at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in London, U.K. Each (human) participant visited a total of six cats they had never met before, for five minutes each time. For the first three cats visited (i.e., the control condition), participants were asked to quietly sit in the cats’ pen and to interact with the cat as they usually would, with the exception that they should avoid picking the cat up, or following the cat if it decided to move away from them. Small GoPro cameras were placed in each of the cats’ pens so that we could record the interactions between the person and the cat unobtrusively. Next, participants were shown a short training video explaining the CAT guidelines – the video included me demonstrating how to apply the guidelines whilst interacting with a Battersea cat. Here’s the video:
Participants were also given an information sheet summarising the guidelines and a researcher was on standby to answer any questions they might have had. For the final part of the study (i.e., the training condition), participants visited another three cats using the same protocol, only this time they were asked to follow the guidelines. After visiting each cat, we also got each person to rate how “friendly,” “comfortable,” and “desirable they thought the cat was. This was because we were interested to see if the guidelines influenced participants’ opinions of cats (either positively or negatively), since we were asking people to interact with cats in a slightly different way from how they would normally.
We were also keen to see if participants were able to pick up on any of the potential differences in cats’ behaviour between the conditions. Finally, we assessed each cats’ temperament using a validated questionnaire, one that I developed during my PhD studies, as we also wanted to see if the cats’ personalities might influence how much (or little) they benefitted from interactions with people that were more closely aligned to “best practice.” For example, we might expect that fearful or easily frustrated cats would benefit the most from humans being more hands off and giving the cat more choice and control during interactions, whilst this might not make as much difference to the super-friendly, easygoing cats. Once all the data was collected, we started to code the cats’ behaviour from each of the videos.
We used a specially developed ethogram (a list of pre-defined behaviours and their definitions) to classify cats’ behaviour. The ethogram focused on cats’ positive and negative social behaviours toward humans (what we would term “affiliative” and “agonistic”), in addition to indicators associated with their general comfort and stress during the sessions. We also assigned a rating to each participant during their interactions with cats based on how closely their approach reflected “best practice” (i.e., what experts deem to be the best way to behave around cats) — this way we could compare participants’ control and training ratings to ensure that people were actually adhering to the guidelines following the training they received! As each cat received three interactions with participants that hadn’t yet had the training and an additional three interactions with participants that had had the training, we were able to directly compare cats’ behaviour between these two conditions, as well as the behaviour ratings given to them by participants. All cats were given at least 48 hours to acclimate to the cattery environment before we enrolled them in the study. We were also very careful to continuously monitor all the cats that were included in the project so that we could quickly remove any we thought were not coping well, or where we were worried a cat might inflict an injury to a participant!
We found that following training, participants’ interactions styles with cats were significantly more likely to reflect best-practices. Comparing cats’ behaviour between the control and training conditions, we found significant differences in the frequencies and durations by which cats expressed a range of different behaviours. For example, in the control condition (before participants had received any training on the guidelines) cats demonstrated higher rates of agonistic behaviours toward participants. These included hissing and growling, cuffing and swiping at people, or attempting to bite them. In this condition, cats also displayed higher rates of behavioural indicators of tension or conflict including paw lifts, rapid self-groom, head/body shake, freeze/crouch, sharp turn of head toward the participant or avoid/move/turn away from participant. Finally, cats also swished their tails for significantly longer durations and rotated and/or flattened their ears more frequently and for longer periods. In contrast, when the same cats interacted with people that had been trained to follow the CAT guidelines, they waved their tails in the air for significantly longer and more frequently, had their ears in a neutral or forwards position for longer, treaded or kneaded with their front paws for longer, sniffed the participant for longer, and also rubbed against them more frequently.
Interestingly, the cats’ temperaments didn’t seem to influence the degree to which their behavioural responses improved within the CAT condition. However, because we removed any cats from the study that were overly fearful or likely to harm participants, we were left with a population of cats that were generally calm and very friendly (and overall rates of aggression toward people were very low across both conditions). Additionally, because we were careful to ensure cats’ wellbeing was always the top priority during the study, even within the control condition, participants were still limited in terms of being able to physically restrain or disturb cats that were trying to avoid them. It is therefore likely that, under non-experimental conditions (e.g., the typical population of cats entering into rehoming centres, combined with the usual very hands-on way that people interact with cats), certain temperaments of cats (e.g., fearful or easily frustrated cats) would particularly benefit from people following the CAT guidelines.
Another interesting finding was that the ratings people gave to cats for their friendliness, comfort, and desirability did not differ between the conditions. This is surprising given that our objective measures of cats’ behaviour told a very different story. What these results therefore suggest is that people are potentially not picking up on the more subtle signs of cats’ comfort/discomfort during typical cat interactions, essentially justifying the need for the guidelines in the first place.
Can you share some insights on how shelters might help adoption counselors give cats a good experience when meeting potential adopters?
I think the three most important points are to:
- Demonstrate how each cat prefers being interacted with. Unless the counsellor knows the cat well, this should focus on allowing the cat to demonstrate what they like – following the CAT guidelines will be really helpful here because they will enable the cat to choose how much, where, and for how long they want to be touched.
- Help adopters to correctly interpret the cats’ behaviour and body language in real time. For example, while the adopter is meeting with the cat, point out how the cat is responding to them and what this means in terms of their comfort/discomfort (see the CAT guidelines for more info about the behaviours to look out for).
- Finally, provide potential adopters with realistic expectations of each cat, by describing as objectively as possible how the cat has behaved in the cattery and any information about their previous history and lifestyle. Careful, regular note-taking of each cat, focusing on objective accounts of their behaviour, are really important. For example, noting that “the cat’s ears were rotated backward and they swished their tail when I approach them” tells use far more about what’s going on than our subjective interpretations, such as “the cat looked grumpy.”
These things all take an amount of skill on the adoption counsellors part however, so we need to ensure that they are given the correct support and training in order to be able to communicate these things to prospective adopters
What are some insights that have come out of cat welfare and behavior research that you wish everyone who worked with cats knew?
I think the most important insight is really to appreciate how diverse cats’ sociability is, toward humans, cats, and other species. We know that as a trait, a cat’s level of sociability is relatively stable, meaning we shouldn’t be forcing cats to be more sociable with us or other cats than they are capable of being, because this can have very negative consequences for their wellbeing. Similarly, even amongst sociable cats, their preferences for human contact can vary considerably and some (otherwise very friendly) cats may prefer minimal amounts of petting, or need to be petted in a very specific way. I hear a lot of people talk about “working” with cats to help them to better “accept” petting, or attempting to “socialise” adult cats. However, in neither of these cases are we recognising the individual needs or preferences of these cats. Instead we are placing our own expectations onto them, usually to the detriment of the cat.
Is it important that behavior consultants and shelter personnel improve their scientific literacy? Why? How might they do so?
Yes, I think this is extremely important, and it was this process of engaging with the scientific literature and thinking more scientifically and objectively about cats that really helped me to understand them better. However, this is not an easy thing to do because the quality of scientific papers can vary greatly, and some can be really difficult to make sense of (even for someone with a PhD!). Additionally, many articles are locked behind pay walls, meaning they are not available to non-academics. What I would recommend is looking for popular articles that are written by respected scientists as well as seeking out applied, evidence-based training courses that are developed by academics with specialisms in the topic you are interested in learning more about. In relation to cat behaviour and wellbeing, I would definitely recommend International Cat Care’s website. They also offer a range of courses (some of which I contributed to) to support both cat owners and those working professionally with cats.
Do you think it’s a good idea for shelters to undertake their own research into the effects of what they’re doing on the wellbeing of the cats in their care?
Yes absolutely, I think it’s vital that shelters are collecting data, and reviewing and subsequently refining their practices. This also offers valuable resources to academics wanting to explore these topics. However, it is notoriously difficult to assess cat wellbeing in the cattery environment, so indirect measures such as rehoming rates, time to rehoming, incidence of upper respiratory tract infections, sickness, and diarrhoea, time cats spend concealed and avoidant of people – can be useful basic metrics to collect when assessing the wellbeing of cattery populations or when reviewing the impact of any changes in management.
Ideally, any research undertaken should be a collaboration between shelter personnel and researchers to ensure that the right data is being collected and that it is analysed and interpreted correctly. I think right now the priority should be to ensure cats are being managed correctly within the cattery, because this is still something that we are really struggling to get right. A lot of this is to do with the fact that we are handling cats far too much and not proving them with sufficient autonomy. We can often misinterpret their behaviour and body language, leading to us missing subtle but important signs of stress, and we can often fail to provide cats with the right sort of physical environment that meets their basic needs, such as sufficient hiding places, a consistent scent profile and a calm, predictable daily routine. Some brilliant research projects could therefore be created around interventions that provide training to staff and encourage implementation of better stress-management protocols.