Interview with an American Cat Researcher

Photo from Kristyn Vitale
Photo from Kristyn Vitale

Kristyn Vitale has always owned cats. As a child, she used to watch them and wonder what was going on in my cats’ heads. Kristyn feels that her curiosity about how cats see the world led her to a career path where she could explore how cats think directly by measuring their behavior.

Although Kristyn’s dream was to work with cats, there were so few opportunities for this line of work that she decided to instead study Zoology, which she felt would allow her to work with animals in some capacity. During her undergraduate studies, she met the late Dr. Penny Bernstein, a professor who studied cat behavior. “When I saw that someone had made a career out of studying cat behavior I decided this was the route I wanted to take,” Kristyn said.

With cats being the number one companion animal in several countries, but very few people studying them, she believed research in this area could also have a large potential impact on cat welfare. “A career in research allowed me to ask questions about cat behavior and find ways of applying our knowledge to strengthen the human-cat bond,” Krisytn explained. Kristyn now works for the Human-Animal Interaction Lab at Oregon State University.

Cat Food Task, Photo from Kristyn Vitale
Cat Food Task, Photo from Kristyn Vitale

ALLISON: What has been your favorite way to work with/help cats?

KRISTYN: Although I have worked with cats in several different capacities my favorite has been to conduct research with cats. I like being able to examine cat behavior through the cat’s eyes. It is also exciting to take cognitive tests designed for other species, such as tests designed for primates or dogs, and problem solve how to make the test more cat appropriate. Research is a creative process that allows me to seek answers about cats by “asking” cats directly through observation of their behavior.

ALLISON: Tell me about your work in cat research.

KRISTYN: My main focus has been examining what factors shape cat social cognition. Social cognition involves how cats perceive social partners in their environment and behave with them. For example, one of our projects examined if kittens that participated in a six-week kitten training and socialization class differed from control kittens on a number of cognitive measures including social behavior toward humans, the ability to pick up on human emotion, and the cat’s underlying affective state–or how “optimistic” or “pessimistic” kittens were in each group. This type of research can not only strengthen our understanding of cat behavior, but it can also be applied to cat welfare more directly in order to find ways of interacting with cats that build healthy cat-human bonds, thereby potentially reducing behavioral problems and cat stress.

Kittens Meet by Kristyn Vitale
Kittens Meet by Kristyn Vitale

ALLISON: How are these studies conducted?

KRISTYN: We conduct research in a variety of settings. This includes our laboratory space at Oregon State University, humane societies, cat owner homes, and public spaces such as cat cafes. Cognitive tests involve placing the cat in a certain environment (such as in a new space with familiar and unfamiliar people) and seeing how they behave. Some tests also require us to train the cats. For example, the cognitive bias test allows us to measure how optimistic or pessimistic a cat. It involves the cat learning to approach and distinguish between two conditions–a person who rewards them and a person who ignores them. There are a lot of different research methods but most of them are centered around keeping tests short and tapping in to skills cats naturally have.

ALLISON: Summarize what you learned from your research:

KRISTYN:

Social behaviors between free-roaming colony cats: In this project we were examining what factors influenced social behavior between farm colony cats. We found that the cats’ social behavior was not significantly influenced by how related cats were to one another or the distribution of food in their environment. However, we did find that cats engaged in social behavior with particular cats in their group. Other studies have called these “preferred associates” meaning cats prefer to interact with certain cats over others. It is still unknown why cats form bonds with certain cats over others, but we did find that the three most commonly engaged in behaviors include sniffing one another, being near to each other and in body contact, and rubbing each other (also known as allorubbing). I am hoping in the future to further look at colony cat social behavior and see how human interaction influences social behavior between colony members.

Influence of kitten training and socialization classes on the human-cat bond: As I mentioned above, the purpose of this project was to examine how providing a six-week kitten training and socialization class influences kitten cognition and the kitten-human bond. One big thing that might surprise people about this project is that kittens were able to  learn several behaviors and tricks including sit, stand, come when called, go to mat and stay, and tricks such as high jump or high five. Kittens also socialized with one another and unfamiliar humans. The results of this project are still being analyzed, but preliminary results indicate that kittens form stable attachment bonds with their owner and that kittens that participated in the training and socialization class do appear to adjust their social behavior to their owner as compared to control kittens that did not participate in the class.

Cross-cultural research into the cat-human bond: In this project, we’re comparing aspects of the cat-human bond in two countries, the US and Japan. One aspect we are examining is how human attachment to cats and cat social behavior toward owners may be similar or different between the two countries. We collected social behavior of cats living in Cat Cafes in Japan and will compare this to cats living in cafes in the US. This project is still being conducted so we do not yet have results to share. However, we have noted that there do seem to be differences in the social behavior of cats in these two countries.

ALLISON: Why have you focused on their social behavior and on the human-cat bond?

KRISTYN: More cats live in homes in the United States than dogs, but we don’t really know much about cat social behavior and what factors influence the human-cat bond. Many people believe cats are a solitary species. However, millions of cats live in homes with humans, dogs, and other cats, and so pet cats do live in social states. We also see free-roaming cats which may live alone or in cat colonies that may contain over a hundred individuals. Domestic cats are facultatively social, meaning they display flexibility in their social behavior. Cats can live both solitarily or socially, depending on their environment and upbringing. Because of this they’re an interesting study species to examine the impact of life experience on social behavior.

For example, many people comment that cats are notoriously hard to train or do not like to leave the house. Often the only time a cat may leave the home is to go to the veterinarian or for boarding and the cat may therefore make a negative association with leaving the home. With training and socialization, opportunities for cats being relatively rare in comparison to opportunities for dogs, the two species are not given equivalent life experience. Therefore, some of the differences in social behavior noted between the two species may be due to differences in experience and human interaction, and not due to innate differences between the species.

This was one of the reasons our lab wanted to examine how providing this experience for cats may alter their social relationship with people. In all, social behavior in cats is an often-overlooked aspect of cat behavior. It’s the goal of our research group to better understand cat social behavior, so we can make better recommendations for cat owners.

Training A Cat, Photo from Kristyn Vitale
Training A Cat, Photo from Kristyn Vitale

ALLISON: Why study a cat’s social behavior towards humans?

KRISTYN: Millions of cats live in human homes, and so cat social behavior toward humans is a huge component of cat owners’ daily lives. If the cat’s social behavior is positive, the bond between cat and owner may be strong. If the cat’s social behavior is aggressive or even misunderstood by the owner, the bond between cat and owner may be weak or non-existent.

From talking to owners, I noticed sometimes cat social behavior can be misunderstood or negative intent applied to the cat’s behavior. For example, allorubbing is a common behavior cats engage in with one another and with humans in which a cat rubs their head or body against another individual. Owners will sometimes say this allorub behavior is due to a cat establishing their dominance over their owner and shows the cat thinks they are “in charge.” However, there is little evidence to support that cats have dominance hierarchies or that allorubbing functions as a dominance or territorial behavior. Instead, research indicates that allorubbing occurs between individuals with a social relationship and may be more related to a security or calming behavior.

Because how owners perceive cat social behavior is a big part of choosing cats for adoption and keeping cats in their homes, having a disconnect between how owners interpret cat social behavior and what research indicates about cat social behavior can be an issue. Therefore, it is really important to study this area so we educate the public about cat behavior, keep cats in their homes, and build stronger human-cat relationships.

Kittens Play, Photo by Kristyn Vitale_
Kittens Play, Photo by Kristyn Vitale_

ALLISON: How are results of cat studies being reported to the public?

KRISTYN: In addition to publishing our research, we often report information about our research and findings to the public via community lectures and workshops. I also teach youth cat training camps which aim at providing children with a scientific understanding of cat behavior, how to read cat body language, and how to foster healthy cat-human interactions. It is very important for us to disseminate our research to the public, so cat owners can learn more about their cat’s behavior and maybe even find ways of addressing behavioral issues that are weakening the cat-human bond.

ALLISON: Share memorable moments from your kitten-training classes.

KRISTYN: Some of the best moments have been to see our kitten alumni return. We had several kittens who went through our classes come back to future classes as adults for additional socialization and training. It is really great to see how much the kittens have grown and how they have turned into true adult cats! It is also fun to see the adults and kittens playing together.

The most rewarding part is to hear from owners about how well their cat is doing. We have several kitten alumni who have gone on to become “adventure cats” and for example will even go out on kayaks with their owner! It is also great to hear about how the shyer cats in our class seem to have become more comfortable in their home and when travelling. I love getting updates on the cats and owners. It makes me happy that so many of them continue to train and work with their cats after the class ended. In fact, many of our kitten class alumni have joined our Cat Club, a club we formed for cats of all ages to receive socialization and training.

ALLISON: Why train cats?

KRISTYN: All owners train their cats, whether they do it consciously or not. For example, does your cat come running when they hear the food bag crinkle or the can opener? This may not be something the owner trained the cat to do, but the cat has made the association that when it hears that particular noise it means they will get food. Similarly, if your cat jumps up onto your lap and you pet them, this rewards the “lap jumping” behavior, making it more likely they will jump up on your lap in the future. If you shoo the cat away, this punishes the “lap jumping” behavior, making it less likely they will do it again in the future. Therefore, every interaction you have with your cat teaches them something. Having a training relationship with your cat can lead to more conscious, positive interactions.

Not only this, but training can be a lot of fun for the owner and it can be an enriching experience for the cat, allowing them to use their brain and problem solve. Training can also be used to redirect problem behaviors or give the cat more freedom of choice. For example, going to the veterinarian can be a stressful experience. Instead of the owner grabbing the cat and placing the cat in the carrier the cat can be trained to go in and out of the carrier on their own, thereby potentially reducing cat stress.

ALLISON: What advice would you give to cat owners wanting to take classes?

Kitten Class, Photo from Kristyn Vitale
Kitten Class, Photo from Kristyn Vitale

ALLISON: Go for it! I think it is very important to give cats the opportunities to socialize and receive training. However, it is also important to consider that not all cats will like this. As I mentioned, cats are individuals with distinct personalities. We had some cats in our training classes that never got super comfortable socializing with other cats or walking around the room. I think it is important that owners accept the level of security their individual cat may have and not force them to be out in the mix with the other cats if the cat is not comfortable with this.

ALLISON: You’ve worked with cats for over a decade in a variety of contexts. How have those experiences shaped what you know about cats?

KRISTYN: Working with cats in several different settings has allowed me to see just how much individual variation there is in cat personality. Each cat really is an individual and the more I work with cats the more I see that most cats do not fit the stereotypes that are so prevalent in our society.

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

KRISTYN: There are people who study cats, especially cat biology. However, most of the research that has been conducted was using cats to study perceptual systems as models of human vision, olfaction, and hearing. On the other hand, the field of cat social behavior and cat-human interactions is much less studied. Part of this stagnation in the field may stem from the idea that cats are not social animals. If cats are solitary why study their social behavior? However, as I mentioned domestic cats do have social behavior that is relatively unstudied.

Another factor may be the idea that cats are difficult to work with or untrainable. Why spend time trying to test a cat’s cognition when they are unwilling to participate in the research? However, I believe that part of the issue is not the difficulty or stubbornness of cats but of adapting the cognitive tests for felines. For example, in our cat preference study we initially began to collect data using the same methods as used with human and dog preference research. We found cats were not engaging in the task using these methods. After we adapted our methodology to a test that was shorter in duration and more cat friendly, we had a much higher success rate of cats engaging in the test. Sometimes researchers just need to be creative and find ways to adapt testing for the species you are working with. I already see cat cognition research becoming more popular in recent years and I hope we see that trend continue in the future.

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