A first-ever study to train cats and their people for better health

Shreve’s research is focused on developing that human-animal bond from the point of view of the animal. She hopes that her first-of-its-kind study will show that well-trained cats lead to happier cats, happier people, and stronger bonds.

“Cats play important roles in the lives of their owners,” says Udell, project leader and associate professor in OSU’s department of animal and rangeland sciences[1]. “They can provide companionship, even if they can’t respond exactly like a human. The cat’s need for care often serves to give their owners purpose.” Cats might be the preferred pet for people who live in small apartments or nursing homes. They’re small enough to easily ride under seats in airplanes, buses, or trains.

The cat’s happiness and welfare depends on its human, and like any relationship, success takes work from both participants. Unless cats get the opportunity to socialize with humans and other cats, they’re less likely to learn how to form emotional bonds and achieve good quality of life. At best that’s a lonely life for a cat. At worst, it leads to negative behavior, the reason most people abandon their pets.

Training classes—just like puppy kindergarten—present a perfect opportunity for socialization. But research into human-cat bonding and its benefits lags 15 years and hundreds of studies behind that of dogs. Thanks to a grant from Nestle, Shreve and Udell will begin to fill the research gap.

“Some of these things that people think are species differences could be experience differences,” Shreve says. “What would children be like if never given the opportunity to socialize?”

Before starting the class, Shreve puts the kittens through a series of cognitive-behavioral tests. She uses behavior to measure the way a cat’s brain processes information, much like tests to gauge a baby’s perception of the world.

For one of these tests, Elikamida Toran sits cross-legged on a padded floor in Udell’s lab on the OSU campus. Pocket, her 4-month-old calico kitten, roams the room, returning periodically to nudge attention from her human companion. Shreve observes the kitten’s response to a series of tests and challenges. When Toran steps out of the room, Pocket follows her to the door but soon returns to her exploration. Shreve notes Pocket’s response to two unfamiliar people, one who pets her, another who does not. When Toran returns to the room, Shreve observes the kitten’s response to various cues from Toran as streamers flutter from a fan.

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