A new study provides interesting info on those who care for unowned cats. Dr. Emily Weiss ponders how the results might impact how we reach out to these folks in our own communities.
Recently a study was published in PlosOne focused on cat ownership perception and caretaking. The manuscript is rich with valuable information for those conducting or developing programs and processes that rely on interaction with people caring for cats. Previous research has identified that individuals feeding unowned cats are likely to be supporting cats who are not sterilized, making the understanding of the perceptions of cat ownership and the behavior of those who care for unowned cats an important tool for the development of solutions to cat homelessness.
In this recent dataset there was also some really juicy stuff about the caretaking behavior of those who did not plan to get their cat, and the caretaking behavior of those who don’t consider themselves the owner of the cats they interact with.
The authors conducted an online survey for those residing in Australia. Those interacting with cats were placed into one of four categories:
- Casual interaction (CI) – a human-cat relationship in which the respondent did not perceive themselves as the owner of the cat, and had interacted with the cat for less than one month and/or had fed the cat only occasionally or not at all
- Semi-ownership (SO) – a human-cat relationship in which the respondent did not perceive themselves as the owner of the cat, but had interacted with the cat for at least a month and had fed the cat frequently or always
- Ownership of a passively acquired cat (OP) – a human-cat relationship of any duration in which the respondent perceived themselves as the owner of the cat and had acquired the cat passively
- Ownership of an actively acquired cat (OA) – a human-cat relationship of any duration in which the respondent perceived themselves as the owner of the cat and had acquired the cat actively
Within the manuscript, the authors included a figure illustrating the similarities and differences in interactions with and caretaking of cats by respondent type. They bucketed the passive vs. actively acquired cats based on the answer to the question, “Did you plan to get your cat?” Other research has found that those who acquire their pets by impulse are at no higher risk of relinquishment than those who acquire with planning, and this study adds to the richness of the already available data. From the figure you can see that those who did not plan to get their cat care for their cats almost exactly as those who did plan. There are some slight differences (for example, there appears to be a slightly lower percentage of those who acquired their pets passively who use toys with their cats), but all in all, cats acquired without planning seem to have it pretty good!
Of great importance to our work toward decreasing the number of cats without homes is the percentage of people who are in the bucket of those who feed cats but do not perceive themselves as the owner who report the cats they care for are sterilized and vaccinated. That’s less than half – making for a lot of well-fed intact cats…ready to procreate. When you look at the figure, these unowned cats get affection and someone spending time with them, but they do not get sterilized – that feels like something we can change.
While we spend a vast amount of resources messaging to those who own cats, most owners report their cat is spayed or neutered. It is not just this study that reports such – many data sets show a high rate of spay/neuter for the owned cat population. Where spay/neuter saturation for cats tumbles is in the population of supported cats who are unowned. Many of the TNR and RTF programs I have observed rely on caring people who deploy to communities to trap cats. Knowing that there are people attached to many of these cats (but they do not see themselves as owners, making our owner message ineffective for the population), shouldn’t we figure out how to reach them? What if the norm in a community was for those who care for unowned cats to ensure these cats are spayed/neutered?
I am not suggesting they do all the work – we are the ones with the access to spay/neuter services, the knowledge of trapping and the tools for support – but what if we could change what is perceived as the minimum of care for cats from feeding and spending time to trapping and calling you to sterilize? Now your caring staff and volunteers can shift from trapping to engaging those who feed cats, picking up cats and returning cats. I would suspect that within those interactions will come not only spay/neuter, but transition homes for some of those cats.
In what ways are you engaging those who care for cats?