How to stroke cats according to science


14 January 2022
Want your cat to enjoy your interactions more? Try following Dr Lauren Finka’s expert guidelines.

When the ‘Science of Cats’ series was running in the magazine a few months ago, I mentioned an exciting research project that I was undertaking in collaboration with Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. After a long period of video analysis and cat behaviour coding, I am delighted to be able to now return with a one-off Science of Cats to share with you the key findings from this study. 

The focus of the project was on assessing the impact of a best-practice approach to human-cat interactions. This topic is actually one that is very close to my heart! Since I first began working as a cat behaviour and welfare scientist, the impact of humans’ cat-handling styles on cats’ comfort and well-being started becoming more apparent. I always found it concerning just how common human-directed aggression seemed to be, even in cats that were seemingly well socialised to people. Equally, so many people seemed to be describing their cats as grumpy or aloof without an understanding of how their behaviour might be contributing to the negative reactions they were observing in their cats. 

Finally, I was also aware of many cats becoming more, rather than less, uncomfortable following petting sessions with members of staff within rehoming centres. This was also disconcerting, given how stressful the cattery environment can generally be for cats, and that ultimately staff were wanting to improve cats’ well-being, not compromise it. I realised what was needed was a better understanding about how cats typically prefer to be interacted with, how to tell if a cat is or isn’t comfortable in this situation, and what to do about it.  

Initially collecting data at Battersea as a student during my PhD studies, I was encouraged to provide feedback to the management team who were keen to improve their cat behaviour and welfare knowledge. One of the key pieces of advice that I focused on was how to appropriately interact with cats so that this was a positive experience for them. To me, this seemed a crucial component of effective stress management that also enabled staff to get a real sense of what each cat really thought of humans, and what type of home they would therefore be best suited to when rehomed. 

Fast forward a few years and this new cat-centric approach became formalised within Battersea’s staff training programmes. Although it may not always be that obvious, there’s an awful lot to understand when it comes to interpreting cat behaviour and body language. It has certainly taken many years of intensely scrutinising cats’ behaviour in minute detail for me to feel that I’ve earned the title of cat behaviour expert. 

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Of course, this level of training isn’t practical to deliver to all cat professionals and owners, and so there was a need for a set of simple, easy to remember guidelines that incorporated the most important principles of optimal human-cat interactions. From this need, the ‘CAT’ interaction guidelines were born. 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!). Amazingly, after their implementation with the catteries at Battersea as part of their stress management strategy, staff reported that cats began seeming much more relaxed, comfortable, and keen to interact when staff adhered to the guidelines. Additionally, rehoming rates started increasing, while cat length of stay decreased by 50 per cent and incidences of
stress-linked illnesses reduced by a whopping 80 per cent. 

Due to this overwhelmingly positive impact, we then decided that we needed to better understand how the guidelines were impacting cats’ behaviour and comfort in real-time. Ultimately, we wanted to provide good scientific evidence to demonstrate how effective and easy to implement the guidelines were and their benefits to cats.

What did the study involve? 

We collected data from 120 cat-loving members of the public and 100 brilliant cats located within the cattery at the Battersea London centre. 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 (the ‘control’ condition), participants were asked to quietly sit in the cat’s 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 while interacting with a Battersea cat (if you’re curious, you can watch the video here: Participants were also given an information sheet summarising the guidelines and a researcher was on standby to answer any questions. 

Read the rest of the feature in the February 2022 issue. Buy the latest digital edition and read instantly on your computer, mobile or tablet device.

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