Eight kittens wearing tiny harnesses explore what looks like a kitty playground of feather toys, stuffed mice, and an obstacle course of carpets, tunnels, and tents. A gray kitten named Sophie is focused on a chopstick her owner holds at knee level, following the tip that’s been dipped in baby food. After a successful walk across the room, they stop and the little gray kitten licks off her reward.
Sophie just completed her first lesson in a training class that will teach her to walk on a leash, come, sit, stay, and stand. She might even learn to play fetch.
Why would anyone want to teach a cat to fetch?
“I would ask, why do people take their dogs to puppy training or take them on walks?” says Kristyn Shreve. “You do it because it’s fun, for you and for your dog. You want to form a bond. It’s the same for cats.”
Shreve is a National Science Foundation graduate fellow pursuing a Ph.D. in animal sciences at Oregon State University. As part of Monique Udell’s Human-Animal Interaction lab, Shreve’s research focuses on cat behavior, cognition, and human-cat interactions. She’s had her share of people wonder why—or even if—cats can be trained and socialized.
Americans love their pets, and more people keep cats as pets than dogs—95.6 million compared to 83.3 million dogs, according to a 2013–2014 survey by the American Pet Products Association. Shreve sees potential in strengthening those millions of bonds.
Strong bonds between people and pets can improve the emotional and physical health of both people and their pets, says Shreve. Recent investigations by the National Institutes of Health have shown that caring for pets can help improve a person’s cardiovascular health. People who own a pet were found to have lower heart rates and blood pressure, whether at rest or when undergoing stressful tests, than those without pets. Pet owners also seemed to have milder responses and quicker recovery from stress when they were with their pets than with a spouse or friend. Research at NIH suggests that the human-animal bond has value in child development, elder care, mental illness, physical impairment, dementia, trauma recovery, and the rehabilitation of incarcerated youth and adults.