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January 12, 2021 – Dr. Kelly Diehl talks with Dr. Kristyn Vitale, an assistant professor of animal health and behavior at Maine’s Unity College. They share insights on feline behavior, a neglected but important area of cat health and well-being. Dr. Vitale busts popular myths about cat sociability, trainability and more

0:00:10.4 Dr Kelly Diehl: Welcome to Fresh Scoop episode 28, feline behavior myth busting. I'm your host, Dr Kelly Diehl, Morris Animal Foundation Senior Director of Science and Communication. And today we'll be talking with Dr Kristyn Vitale. Dr Vitale is an assistant professor of animal health and behavior at Unity College and a recent speaker in the Foundation's webinar series on feline behavior. We asked Dr Vitale, to join us again to talk about feline behavior with our podcast audience and share insights on this neglected but important area of cat health and well-being. Dr Vitale is also the creator and co-host of CatSci podcast. The podcast presents the current science behind cat behavior and cognition and aims to apply this knowledge to strengthen the cat-human bond. The podcast is available at YouTube. Just search for the channel CatSci podcast. So Kristyn, thanks for joining us today.

0:01:06.3 Dr Kristyn Vitale: Thanks for having me.

0:01:10.2 DD: I ask this of all of our podcast guests, before we get into your work, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you to specializing in feline behavior?

0:01:20.4 DV: Yeah, so I've always been fascinated by cat behavior, and I always knew I wanted to work with the animals someday, but I wasn't really sure what career path to follow, and at first I kind of just thought, you know, go to vet school, but then when I was in my undergrad at Kent State University in Ohio, I met the late Dr Penny Bernstein, and Penny studied cat behavior and cat-human relationships. And it was kind of eye-opening for me that somebody could make that their career just researching cat behavior, and I just couldn't believe what a cool job that could be. So through that experience, I really just realized we didn't know very much scientifically about cat behavior, and I also realized just how many stereotypes existed about cat behavior that were just kind of counter to what my experience with cats had been, just stereotypes like cats don't like people. So after meeting penny, my career path really just focused on gaining education to study animal behavior and human-animal relationships, which would allow me to specialize in cat behavior.

0:02:32.5 DD: That's so cool. I am a long-time cat owner for going on 50 years now since I got my first cat Fluffy, rest in peace. But I wanted to ask you, Kristyn, have you had cats your whole life and how many cats do you have currently?

0:02:51.1 DV: Yeah, I've always had cats growing up. I was kind of that child who when I saw a stray cat outside, I just kind of secretly started feeding the cat behind my parents' backs, and my family ended up adopting several stray cats because of that, but I myself currently have four cats. I have three male cats, Bo, Carl, Kevin, and one female cat, Macy, and Bo is really my trick cat. He knows how to perform a lot of different behaviors like high five, jumps, spins, sits, stand but those are the four cats I have currently.

0:03:29.8 DD: Oh, that's great. I have three Bernie, Trixie and Millie and they're littermates that we adopted last year, so they're babies right now. We're starting that cycle of baby to adult again, and I have to admit, I really learned a lot in your webinar series, and I'm almost ashamed to say it that... I mean I just admitted I've had cats for a long time, and I learned a ton of things that I fell for the same sort of stereotypes you mentioned, which is why I wanted to have you on to do a little myth busting. So first one, you mentioned a little bit, but cats, I think we think of them as being solitary and not very sociable, so myth bust that one for us.

0:04:17.2 DV: Yeah, so you're totally right that many people view cats as solitary animals, and that's not really unexpected given that they've descended from a solitary ancestor, which was the African Wildcat, but domestic cats themselves are actually what's known as facultatively social. So what that means is that domestic cats display flexibility in their social behavior, so they can live either socially or solitarily, just depending on their environment and upbringing. So for an example, we can look at outdoor free-roaming cats. Outdoor cats can live alone and they might only interact with other cats during mating or territorial disputes, but we also see that domestic cats can live outdoors and those who grow up around other cats, especially in an environment rich with resources, we'll see that they'll actually form cat colonies, which are groupings of cats that live together in the same location, and these groups, they can be highly gregarious, they can be composed of individuals... Well, over 100 individuals. So in general, we do find that domestic cats do have the capacity to engage in a lot of social behavior and live socially, and especially socialized domestic cats have the potential to be highly social, both with other cats and with humans, and some of our research has actually shown that cats prefer human interaction over other rewards such as food or toys.

0:05:55.8 DD: Oh, so thanks, Kristyn, for telling us a little bit about sociability, but let's go on to the next myth, and you alluded to this for everyone who was listening very closely about your cat Bo, and I've seen videos of Bo, but talk to us about that myth that cats just aren't trainable.

0:06:15.0 DV: Right, and that's another myth that I hear a lot, that you can't train a cat, but cats are indeed trainable, and if you don't believe me, try doing a search for the Amazing Acro-Cats. Samantha Martin, who is the trainer of these cats, has just taught them to do amazing things in front of live audiences. So cats are trainable and when we look at how animals learn, we see that learning principles are actually pretty universal across species, so what this means is that how a cat learns is really not all that different from how a person learns or how a dog learns.

0:06:51.8 DV: So we can look at these same principles of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment, and we can see that they still apply to cats, dogs, and people. So for example, if we use positive reinforcement, that means that we're going to give the cat something to increase the frequency of that behavior, so say for example, you wanted to try and train your cat to sit, you could give your cat a reward each time they sit. So when they sit and the behavior is followed by a pleasant outcome, like a food treat, the cat learns to sit more frequently, but with cat training I would say that the biggest mistake I see cat trainers make, and I think is one reason people think of cats as untrainable is that sometimes people use the wrong rewards for training, so most people often only think of food when they train animals because it's really easy to deliver a food treat, sit now here's a treat.

0:07:51.5 DV: But not every cat wants food all of the time, and I've had owners ask their cat to sit, the cat will sit and then the owner will reward with a treat, the cat might sniff the treat and then turn up their nose and walk away, and the owner looks at me and says, see, that cat can't be trained, but the cat did the behavior, they just didn't want the reward that you gave them, so this is kind of backed up by a research study we did that looked at cat preferences for different items, and we found that only 37% of cats that we tested most preferred food over other items. So for many cats, food is not what is most preferred, and we actually found that 50% of cats most preferred some type of social interaction with people, either being pet, played with, or talked to, so what reward you use during training will kind of just really depend on the preferences of the individual cat you're working with, but say you do have a cat who prefer social interaction, instead of having them sit and giving them a treat, now you can have them sit and you can praise them, say good job, or you can pet them or you can give them access to a toy for a brief period of time. So I think that kind of considering the individual cat and what they want to work for will help people when training cats and maybe help convince them that they are trainable animals.

0:09:23.1 DD: And that brings me to another question that I had that I think you've probably heard, too, which is that we think that one reason why cats are understudied and maybe even when you're in the house is that they are hard to handle and difficult to work with and how have you found working with cats and what do you tell people when you hear that?

0:09:53.7 DV: Yeah, so I have not personally found this to be the case. I've worked with cats my whole life my whole career, so I'm pretty confident and comfortable working with cats, but I think that even given that one factor when we look at researchers starting to work with cats, is that some of this methodology that they're using, some of it might work well across several different species, but other tests that are being used or applied directly from dogs or other species without a consideration of how they can be modified specifically for cats. So for example, we found that cats often do better with shorter testing times, so in our methods we'll often have behavioral tests which don't last more than 15 or 20 minutes. So I think that kind of just altering our methods a little bit specifically for cats will help them be a little easier to handle because we're considering what that individual species needs.

0:10:55.9 DV: I also think that this idea of cats being hard to handle, especially in labs or other unfamiliar locations, kind of stems from this fact that we treat dogs and cats very differently. So what I mean by that, we take puppies and dogs commonly out of the house. They go on car rides, they go on trips to the dog parks, they participate in training and socialization classes, but we rarely engage in these activities with our cats, and we might find that the only time a cat leaves the home is to go to the vet, and so they might form an association between leaving the home and getting a medical check-up or leaving the home and having to go to boarding or something unpleasant.

0:11:43.0 DV: So, this might make some cats harder to handle in unfamiliar locations, especially if they've never experienced good things happening outside of the home, they might just be expecting something unpleasant to happen. So some of these ideas that cats are difficult to work with, especially in comparison to dogs, they might be due to differences in the actual experiences that we're giving our cats and not due to species differences between dogs and cats specifically, but in general, I would tell people if they're approaching me saying, oh, cats are unhandleable or difficult to work with I would promote them to, first off, look at the methods they're using, but also look at the way that they're behaving towards the animal in attempting to handle the cat as well.

0:12:30.5 DD: And that brings us actually, to a question I want to ask you, and I'm going to tell everyone, we had a great webinar with Kristyn where she showed these adorable videos, because she talked about kitten socialization, which is a subject that's close to me right now, having just adopted three kittens, and I think people hear a lot about puppy socialization, but tell us about your work with kitten socialization and what that actually looks like and why it's important.

0:13:02.5 DV: Yeah, so when I was at Oregon State University, I taught kitten training and socialization classes for kittens aged three to eight months, and typically, when you see these socialization classes or kitten kindergarten classes, they're often for younger kittens, so kittens around eight weeks old who are still in that sensitive period for socialization. However, myself and Dr Monique Udell, who is my advisor at this time, we decided to focus on older kittens and really examine if these older kittens would also benefit from a six-week training and socialization class, which was often offered to puppies, and so we did model this class of puppy classes with obviously some adjustments for cats, we had cat towers, we had toys, we had rugs that cats could go hide inside of, so we did try to present the class in a way that would facilitate normal cat behavior, climbing and watching. But we also did the typical clicker training that you would see with dogs.

0:14:11.1 DV: So the class was six weeks long and during the class, the owners learned how to clicker train their kittens, and they taught their kittens several different behaviors, things like sit, come when called, go to mat and stay, walk on harness and leash and other trick behaviors. We even had one cat whose owner taught them to sit and stay in a kayak, and the cat still will go out and sit and stay in the kayak while their owner goes out on the water. So kittens really, it was amazing some of the things that the owners taught them to do. On top of the behaviors we taught kittens were also just socialized to the unfamiliar environment and also unfamiliar people and other cats. So again, this idea that cats can't go out into novel or unfamiliar locations and they can't socialize with other cats, that was not something we found. We found that overall cats did very well, especially when we worked up to it, we slowly kind of expose cats to this environment and to other cats and other people.

0:15:18.2 DD: That was really fascinating for me to learn from you, and certainly something I think I was guilty of, too, with kitten socialization, and I really appreciate you elaborating on it. So I'm going to give you a chance now, since I've been asking the questions, tell us something, a myth about the human-cat bond that just drives you crazy when you hear it.

0:15:45.0 DV: Yeah, so something that I hear a lot is this idea that cats don't need people or that even social bonds aren't natural for cats, and I've kind of already touched on this, but one of my research areas is the cat-human bond, and so we specifically studied that attachment bond between pet cats and their owner, and we basically found that this myth doesn't hold up, that cats actually do use their owners as a source of comfort and security and they can form bonds with their owner, and actually these bonds that they form are very similar to the same type of bonds that we observe between human infants and their parents and between dogs and their owners. So what we're seeing is cats really do have a... They have the capacity to form strong, secure bonds with their owners, and what this means is that especially when faced with unfamiliar or strange circumstances, that their owner is an important source of comfort and security for them. So this idea, this myth that cats don't form bonds or that they're not social animals, just isn't holding up based on our research.

0:16:57.1 DD: That's really interesting. I observe that a little bit in our household, I took the lead when we got our kittens in doing a lot of their care stuff, the rest of my family, my kids, my husband are involved and they are like my little dogs. I swear they follow me around the house and they're outside the door right now, as we're recording this. Is that not unusual? I thought it was a little unusual for cats, but it sounds like maybe not.

0:17:30.0 DV: It so depends on the individual cat, so I would not say it's unusual. I have cats that will meet me at the door or follow me from room to room, but I've also had cats that don't do that, and again, it kind of comes back to this flexible social nature of cats, that some cats are going to be highly social and some cats are going to be less social, and it just really depends, but I think that kind of this idea of cats being skewed towards that non-social area just is not supported, and actually in our research where we did look at the sociability of pet cats, we saw not a skew towards independence, but actually that they were spending quite a lot of time with people, especially when people paid attention to them, they're spending well over 50% of this testing session interacting with people. So yeah, I think it just really depends on the individual cat.

0:18:27.0 DD: Yeah, I think you brought up a good point too, that we may as owners be careful about, which is the idea that they are solitary because maybe we're perpetuating or creating tension where we don't mean to.

0:18:42.1 DV: Right, and going off of that as well, in that same research where we're looking at cat sociability, we looked at how the owner's behavior impacted the cat and found that cats spent less time with people when they ignored them and spent more time with people when they paid attention to them. So if you are a person who just already expects that your cat isn't social, doesn't prefer social interaction, so you don't go out of your way to interact with that cat, then you might actually be producing a cat that's less social because you never go out of your way to interact with them. And you can think about if we go to a party and your friend is just sitting there, if you're just sitting there not talking to anybody, probably less people are going to come up to you and engage with you than if you're out there talking and paying attention, so same kind of thing. It's really important to pay attention to your cat and to try to initiate interactions with them and see how they respond.

0:19:38.6 DD: So I wanted to move on to, even though I know this is a whole lecture in and of itself, but what is a myth that is incorrect, that you hear about multi-cat households all the time?

0:19:54.0 DV: Yeah, so again, coming back to this myth that cats aren't social animals, so living in a multi-cat household has kind of been discussed as, this isn't good for proper cat welfare, since social behavior isn't something natural for cats. But as we've kind of already touched on, cats display a lot of flexibility in their social behavior, and there's actually recent research that did look at multi-cat homes and stress levels in the homes, and they didn't actually find that multi-cat homes were associated with higher stress levels or anything like that. What they did find is there's just a lot of individual variation and stress within these homes, so some cats are stressed from living in multi-cat homes, whereas some cats are actually more stressed from living alone, so again, it just all depends on that individual cat and also the relationship between the cats in the home.

0:20:52.0 DD: Okay, I think all of us who've ever had cats and multiple cats, that really hits home for me because I've seen cats, and I think we've all experienced a cat that may lose a family member, whether that's a cat or even a dog, I had in one case, with one cat who just loved our old Labrador and they react really differently when that happens.

0:21:18.2 DV: Absolutely, yeah.

0:21:21.0 DD: I wanted to also move on to an area that you're focused in, which is social cognition, and if you could talk a little bit about the social cognition, you mentioned it, of what it is and how dogs and cats compare.

0:21:37.5 DV: Yeah, so cognition is really related to all of the mental processes going into how to react to a social partner in their environment, so when we talk about the social abilities of cats versus dogs, how well are these animals responding to social cues in their environment? Are they able to follow and know what human gestures mean? Are they able to detect human behavior, attentional state? So these are all questions we might explore in social cognition, even something like does a cat bond to their owner? So when we look at some of this recent research, we see that really the social cognition of cats is comparable to that of dogs. So as I've already mentioned, cats and dogs both are forming similar social bonds with their owners, and both can be described as a secure bond. We can also see that cats and dogs are really similar on other cognitive tests, things like pointing trials, they found that cats and dogs can both follow human pointing cues and that both species actually perform above chance and follow pointing cues to the correct location. They've also seen cats can follow the gaze of people, they'll socially reference their owner's behavior, and they'll alter their behavior depending on the attentional state of a human, which I already mentioned.

0:23:08.8 DV: So in all this is kind of supporting that idea that cats really are attuned to the social cues of humans and that they're capable of forming bonds with people. So for a long time, it's kind of been assumed that because cats are solitary, there's not really any social cognition in a sense to study there. But one other thing, again, coming back to this idea that we expect different things out of dogs and cats, and a lot of times I think that's presented as dogs are one way and cats are another way, but I think that some of these differences that we might be seeing or even describing are more based on our expectations and how we directly treat those animals than actual differences in cognitive abilities between the two species.

0:24:00.3 DD: Okay, yeah, that's really interesting, because I think we just naturally fall into those patterns. And I've even heard, and maybe you've heard this, and this could be a total myth, where they talk about the intellectual abilities of cats versus dogs, and that dogs are more like a toddler and cats are more like infants, and it sounds like that's a really wrong way of thinking of them.

0:24:25.4 DV: Yeah, and I don't have too much to say on actually the intelligence between dogs and cats because I do think it's very hard, even within humans, different people have different levels of intelligence, so it's hard to say that all cats are one way, all dogs are another way. I'm sure there are some dogs that are more intelligent than some cats and some cats that are more intelligent than some dogs, but I think it isn't really helpful to compare the two species in... Because in the end, they're both important species that we should respect.

0:25:03.3 DD: Right, and I appreciate you pointing that out because I think it's really easy to divide into camps on that, and I think it's more... What I've learned from you is it seems like it's more fluid than where we've sort of compartmentalized in the past. I wanted to ask you if you could give one piece of advice to new cat owners. We'll start with first, what would that be?

0:25:29.7 DV: So I would say get to know your cat. One thing I'm hoping you've gotten from this so far is that every cat is a distinct individual, so knowing how to interact with that specific individual cat will help promote a strong bond, and one way you could do that with a new cat is to conduct a basic preference assessment. So, like I mentioned previously, we did this as a research study with cats, but you could do this more informally by just giving your new cat various options of toys, food, scents and different types of human interaction, and just see what items your cat spends the most time with. So if your new cat spends the most time interacting with you and forgoes paying attention to the food or toys, then that would indicate that your cat prefers social interaction, and so that would then mean you need to make sure you're giving your cat adequate time to have social interaction every day. Now, if you have a cat that is more food motivated, then you want to make sure that they have a lot of food puzzles in order to engage in these important food getting behaviors, so something like a preference test will just help you get a very basic idea of what your pet likes in order to kind of start that new relationship with them.

0:26:49.2 DD: That is super helpful, and I wanted... Kind of branching off from that, I think there are probably a lot of us who have cats. And what can owners do to improve their relationship with their cat, even if it's a cat you've had for a while.

0:27:05.4 DV: So first, I would say don't limit what you think your cat is capable of, especially in terms of training. The first cat that I ever taught was my cat Cecilia, who was seven years old when I started training her, so don't limit what your cat's capable of just based on your expectations for that animal, and I also want to say that training is more than just teaching simple tricks, it's actually a method of communication, and sometimes I hear people say that training a cat is actually taking away their independence, but even if you're not actually meaning to actively train your cat, your cat is still learning from you every single day. Your cat's learning that when they meow at you, you look at them, or that when you go to the cupboard, it's time for a meal. So just like we are always learning, cats are always learning from consequences in their environment, and in order to improve that relationship, make sure that you're not only paying attention to your cat's behavior, but your own behavior and how your behavior impacts your cat's behavior as well.

0:28:13.7 DD: Yeah, that's really, I think really important. We actually trained our kittens with a sound when we want them to go in the basement, which sometimes we do when we're doing work upstairs, and just, this is going to sound crazy, by going ding ding, and... Because we linked it to food back in the day, and it's a great way of us sort of herding them into a place if we need them, they just know that that means go over here. And I've been amazed, but I think you're right, I think we sometimes... And I forget that inadvertently train them, don't we, just from our habits. For everyone who's listening, and I know we've just talked a lot about this, but what do you think is the most important take home message for our listeners, no matter whether they're veterinarians or vet techs or what practice that may be in or if they're just cat owners, like a lot of us... When dealing with particularly behavior problems, what would you talk to people about with that? because I think that's where cats get a special bad rap, is with their behavior stuff.

0:29:28.4 DV: Right, yeah. Well, I would first say that going back to this idea that we're not treating cats and dogs the same way, and so many cats are living an indoor-only lifestyle, which is really good for them in a lot of ways, and also for our environment, but it also means that cats are kind of living in an environment that is at risk of being static and uninteresting, so if you just have your home and the toys never change, none of the environment ever changes and the cat doesn't have anything to do all day, I think that a lot of this is what stems some of these behavioral issues. And especially if you've already ruled out medical issues, try changing your cat's environment and seeing if it helps promote some more natural positive behaviors, so for example, maybe your cat is just wound up and full of energy. And so you should try giving your cat their meals and food tasks or puzzles that allow them to expel some of that energy and engage in important food-getting behaviors. You can also put cat towers around the home that allows them to jump and climb and watch you from different heights, you can make sure to switch out toys so the cats aren't habituating to the same item and just keep the environment interesting by incorporating novelty into their environment. These changes might not help all behavior problems, but often a change in the cat's environment can be all that's needed to help reduce some of these problems and help promote more natural behavior.

0:31:11.9 DD: And one thing that I want to add in here that I picked up from Kristyn's webinar series when we did it, that I thought was really cool, Kristyn, was you showed a lot of pictures of cats just playing in a... You get a box out, and I think the... It's always... People talk about cats and boxes, and what I learned, and I'm trying to be more patient with is if I have something like that, I get a box from Amazon, is letting them play with it before I clean it up or take it apart, and being more tolerant of... You know what I mean, them exploring things that are coming in the house before we just automatically put stuff away or clean something up or... I think you had one in a cooler, right? You had come home and the cats would jump in front of the cooler.

0:32:01.2 DV: Right.

0:32:08.2 DD: And is that kind of a very simple thing we can do for cats?

0:32:09.2 DV: Oh, absolutely, yeah. So for those who weren't at the webinar, the cooler story is basically when my husband and I were going to go to the beach, we went and got our cooler, we left it in the living room, and by the time he got back, two of our boys were in it exploring. So it wasn't something we had meant to be enrichment, but because it was novel and in their environment, it served as enrichment. So just something as simple, when you maybe bring the groceries home, you can let them sniff them, like you're saying what... Leave the box from the Amazon package out for a little bit, let them climb in there, put some catnip in there, but just changing up the environment in these simple ways is something that I think can really help promote more of this healthy behavior.

0:32:56.5 DD: Well, I was really impressed with that, and I think, again, as a family, we've been... I'm always one who sometimes likes to clean things up right away, and I have become much more tolerant about letting the cats explore these tiny little changes in the environment that happen one day versus the next. They like bubble wrap too for some reason. My cats are into it and they'll dig it out of the garbage, and we try to be tolerant of that. So Kristen, thanks so much for joining us today. This was so much fun and talking to us about this, just cat behavior and the myth-busting, and we'll look forward to reading more of your work on this topic in the future, and again, thanks for humoring me and coming on again.

0:33:42.2 DV: Of course, thanks for having me.

0:33:44.7 DD: So that does it for this episode, as I mentioned, of Fresh Scoop, and once again, thanks to Dr. Kristyn Vitale for joining us, and we'll be back with another episode next month that we hope you'll find just as informative. The science of animal health is ever-changing and veterinarians need cutting edge research information to give their patients the best possible care. And that's why we're here. You can find us on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, and Stitcher. And if you like today's episode, we'd sure appreciate it, if you could take a moment to rate us because that will help others find our podcast. And of course, to learn more about Morris Animal Foundation's work again, go to There you'll see just how we bridge science and resources to advance the health of animals. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I'm Dr. Kelly Diehl and we'll talk soon.