Interview with a Cat Graduate Student Researcher

Photo provided by Jennifer White

Jennifer White is a cat graduate student researcher in Canada. Her interest arises from experiences with her own, but also an over all concern for cat welfare. Jennifer believes that, “Cats are often misunderstood, discarded, and viewed as replaceable.”

The focus for her current research is to determine the effects of human social enrichment on emotion and affiliative (bonding) behaviors in anxious shelter cats. “Local shelters need support to help manage cats that often come in with health or behavior issues,” Jennifer explained. “The more we learn about how to improve animal welfare in shelters, the healthier and happier shelter cats will be, thereby improving their chances of adoption.”

Jennifer’s long-term goals are to become certified as an Applied Animal Behaviorist with the Animal Behaviour Society and to help improve animal welfare through a greater understanding and application of animal behavior research.

ALLISON: Tell me about your cats.

JENNIFER: I currently have three cats: “Toby”, “Finnigan” and “Echo”. They were all homeless when I took them in. Toby and Finn are brothers that I fostered as kittens and decided to keep (foster fail!). Echo showed up at my back door repeatedly but was quite elusive. With winter approaching I eventually got him into the house and he never left.

Toby is my baby but very shy around other people. Finn is braver but is also a bit anxious at times. He is a daddy’s boy. Echo is shy as well, but he and Toby are best buddies and stick together a lot.

Wicket, Photo provided by Jennifer White
Wicket, Photo provided by Jennifer White

ALLISON: What interests you about cats?

JENNIFER: My interest in cats all started with my first cat “Wicket,” whom I started fostering along with his brother as one-week old kittens. Bottle feeding and caring for young kittens, with the help of my dog “Jake” was quite a rewarding experience. As they grew older, I found a home for one and decided to keep the little black and white tuxedo. Wicky was very intelligent with loads of personality. I could take him anywhere. Whether walking on leash in the woods behind our house or strutting down the corridor among dogs at our local Pet Expo or accompanying me at presentations for large groups of children, he was very confident and had attitude to boot.

Although his antics would sometimes get him into trouble, he really just had us all trained to do what he wanted. Sadly, he passed away from cancer way too soon at only eight years old. He was a one of a kind scamp that turned into the most wonderful family cat we could have ever asked for. Even among the craziness with the kids, he was always right there. His amazing cleverness, boldness, softness, and silly antics made us laugh often. We loved him dearly and still miss him every day.

ALLISON: Tell me about your interest and work in stewardship.

JENNIFER: In my full-time work with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, I focus on stewardship of protected lands and working with volunteers and communities to help care for ecologically sensitive land and species. My interest in caring for ecologically sensitive land stems from a connection to animals and an understanding that you can’t have a healthy wildlife population without healthy and adequate habitat to support the species. Just as each individual person needs a safe home, nutritious food, and water, and the opportunity to foster social relationships with others, so does each individual animal.

Wicket, Photo provided by Jennifer White
Wicket, Photo provided by Jennifer White

ALLISON: Share highlights from working as a presentation program coordinator with the Kindness Club.

JENNIFER: My time working for the Kindness Club Inc. was very special in many ways. First, I got to bring my dog to work, which I loved! Second, I had the opportunity to visit thousands of people (mostly children) over the years and, with the help of my wonderful dog Jake and occasionally my gregarious, but cool cat Wicky to teach the importance of Kindness to Animals and Pet Safety. While multiple presentations each week can at times be tiring, meeting children (some of which had never had a positive encounter with a dog or cat) and giving them the tools to help them understand and be safe around animals was very rewarding.

ALLISON: How has researching cats helped you understand your own?

JENNIFER: Although my research project isn’t complete, I’ve learned a lot about emotion. I’ve learned about recognizing, understanding, and helping to alleviate anxiety in cats. In addition, I have a better understanding into looking beyond obvious signs of anxiety to indicators that an animal is thriving. Thriving is different from merely surviving–it is being healthy and expressing natural behaviors. It is living a life that is full. That is why my project will focus in large part on observing bonding behaviors between people and cats such as rubbing, rolling and purring, which may be indicators that a cat is thriving in their environment with people. The experience of working with my extremely knowledgeable committee members and shelter staff has also helped me to navigate difficult behavior cases at the shelter where I’m conducting my research.

I would flip your question, and say that it is the cats (my own and shelter cats) who have helped to guide my research. Since I was a child, I’ve always had an interest in animal behavior and often wondered why they do what they do. Watching cats and trying to understand how they feel has helped form questions about specific behaviors. I won’t be able to answer all my questions with this one study but I’m hoping to get a little closer to understanding them.

Photo provided by Jennifer White

ALLISON: Why do you think there are so few researchers studying cats?

JENNIFER: I’ve noticed that research questions get studied often times not because of student interest but rather because of funds that become available from a certain industry sector such as human health, food or environment.

In the domestic animal welfare and behavior fields, research needs seem to be primarily driven by the pet food industry and not as strongly from other sectors. Funds are few and far between. Those that do exist are very competitive.

Partnerships with universities and business can support shelters in conducting ethical, non-invasive health and behavior research in a real-world setting. It’s only by learning and understanding how to better support cats in and out of shelter that we will be able to provide and teach improved welfare methods that include addressing physical and mental health as well as proper handling.

The human health sector has a lot to benefit from supporting this type of research as well. Understanding and applying proper care and handling of shelter animals may help to reduce stress, injury, and illness in shelter staff, as well as support the transition of animals into family homes.

The good news is, over the past few years, there does appear to be an increase in studying domestic dog behavior. Hopefully, cats won’t be far behind.




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