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.
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. “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.
All these tests add up to a cognitive-behavioral profile of little Pocket. Shreve will test the kitten again following the 6-week class, along with untrained kittens as controls. Her results will begin to fill gaps in our understanding of the human-cat bond, inching closer to the extensive work already done on the human-dog bond.
Katie O’Neil and her husband Shawn are quick to show off what their two cats learned in Shreve’s class. On command, black-cat Sterling Cooper “sits” and “stands.” When Katie holds a tiny treat 5 feet off the floor, white-and-gray Byron Bojangles IV makes an impressive leap straight into the air. Both cats love to walk on leash and Bo happily takes on a game of fetch. No matter the command, Katie says, the kittens think, then respond.
Curiosity got the best of Sarah Montoya, a student in veterinary medicine at OSU. How much could her two kittens, Max and Franklin, possibly learn? And what would she learn about cat behavior that she could someday pass along to her clients? It didn’t take long to find out. The first night of kitten class, 7-month-old Max and Franklin were terrified; they wouldn’t come out of the corners, not even to eat. After six weeks of training, Montoya now takes the kittens on walks around their neighborhood and to a friends’ house for play dates.
“Many people see cats as couch potatoes or house decorations,” Montoya says. “This class blows that theory out of the water. You can have a complex relationship with a cat. That bond gets stronger over time, so it’s important to have a well-trained pet.”
And there are useful roles for cats that go beyond engaging companionship. Cats with appropriate training are beginning to serve as therapy animals in hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare institutions, especially in situations when people fear dogs or where only a small animal will fit. Shreve points out that, with their amazing noses, cats may sniff out seizures or panic attacks. For search and rescue missions, it’s not hard to imagine cats squeezing into spaces too tight for dogs or climbing to heights too precarious for dogs.
“Let’s debunk a myth,” Udell says. “The key for training any animal to be successful in any working role is to have a strong understanding of what their strengths are and what advantages that particular species might have over another. For some circumstances, cats are an obvious choice.”
“Unfortunately, too many cats get abandoned or dumped in shelters by disillusioned owners who failed to develop a bond or understand cat social behavior,” Shreve says. If people knew that certain behaviors, like scratching, are normal and can be redirected using the training techniques she teaches, they’d be less likely to abandon their pets.
Back in the classroom, Shreve mills among the cavorting kittens. As a teacher, researcher, and animal lover, she translates for the other humans the kittens’ purrs and trills, their head bumps and nose-to-nose hellos. Class begins.