Hard to Handle: How do Cats Respond to Different Types of Handling?

This post first appeared on iCatCare here.

At iCatCare we recognise how important gentle positive handling is to protect both a cat’s mental wellbeing and physical health.

In fact, positive gentle handling is a key component of our Cat Friendly Clinic programme – our worldwide programme from our veterinary division The International Society of Feline Medicine (ISFM) designed to help reduce stress to cats and their owners associated with a visit to the veterinary clinic. Every day we see the positive benefits of such feline friendly handling with cats remaining calm, allowing examinations and some cats even giving our veterinary members purrs and rubs.

What has been lacking is scientific evidence to back up what we as professionals know and practice.

Dr Carly Moody

Dr Carly Moody

Dr Carly Moody, now Assistant Professor in Animal Welfare Epidemiology at the University of California, Davis, USA recognised just how important this underpinning evidence is. Between 2014 and 2018, her PhD research, carried out at the University of Guelph, Canada, examined cat welfare during handling and restraint.

Our Spotlight on Science this month, focusses on one of the published papers from this doctoral research
  validating negative responses to restraint in cats Published in 2018 in the journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science, iCatCare’s Feline Wellbeing Panel Member Dr Lauren Finka takes us through the methodology, findings and implications.   

What did the study do?  

Fifty-one non-pedigree cats residing within an animal shelter (also known as a homing centre) in Ontario, Canada were observed whilst being restrained during a typical health examinationThe study exposed cats to one of two different types of restraint which were termed either ‘Passive’ or ‘Full-body’. During ‘Passive’ restraint, cats were lightly held with the least amount of physical restraint possible. Cats were allowed to move their head, body and limbs and were examined whilst either standing, sitting or lying down, based on their preference. In contrast, during the ‘Full body’ restraint, all cats were held on their side with their back against the handler, and the cat was allowed little or no movement. The handler had a forearm placed across the cat’s neck and also held both their front and back legs. 

All cats were restrained for two minutes and then observed for an additional minute once released. Differences in the behaviour and physiology of the cats were then compared between the different restraint
. The researchers collected a series of measures including: 

  • How many attempts and how long it took the handler to get the cat into the restraint position 
  • How many times the cat vocalised and licked its lips, the duration the cat thrashed its tail forand the position of the cat’s ears (whether they were held to the back or side of the head). These measures are all considered potential indicators of the cat experiencing negative emotional state, based on previous research 
  • How dilated the cat’s pupils were, their heart beat and respiratory rate. These measures were potential indicators of how physiologically aroused (or stressed) the cat was 
  • Whether the cat struggled 
  • How quickly the cat jumped off the examining table once released 

Prior to each health examination, each cat was also exposed to an ‘unfamiliar person test’ in order to try to gauge the cat’s degree of general friendliness. Cats were placed in a carrieinside a small test arena containing an unfamiliar person. Each cat was then rated as ‘friendly’ or ‘unfriendly’ based on whether they exited the carrier and allowed the person to approach and stroke them   

What were the main findings of the study? 

No surprises – the study found that overall, cats took longer for the handler to place them into the ‘Full body’ restraint, compared with the ‘Passive restraint. Cats were also 8.2 times more likely to struggle during ‘Full body’ restraintbut were 6.1 times less likely to stay on the examination table once released. Cats in this condition also had ears which were more frequently held to the side or back of their head, had an elevated respiratory rate (number of breaths taken)and also licked their lips more frequently. 

Interestingly, both the sex of the cat and the cat’s perceived level of friendliness also played an important role in relation to the study’s findings. Male cats were found to take even longer than female cats to be placed into the Full body restraint position, however, in general female cats were quicker to leave the exam table once released. In addition, cats deemed unfriendly had more dilated pupils when experiencing ‘Full body’ restraint compared to those in the ‘Passive condition and compared to friendly cats in both conditions.  

Why is this study useful? 

In some instances, it’s still a commonly held belief that restraining a cat so that it is immobilised is necessary, and may have a calming influence on the individual. However, it is important to bear in mind that when an animal is in a stressful situation (such as when being examined at the vets)if it is being restrained in a way that renders it completely incapable of escaping or defending itself, this can actually be quite distressing. Just because the animal is immobile, doesn’t mean it feels ‘calm’ on the inside. 

This research provides important evidence in support of the fact that this type of immobilisation in cats has a more negative impact on them, in addition to being less practical (it is potentially more time consuming and more likely to cause the cat to struggle). In exceptional cases, where a cat MUST be completely restrained for its own or our safetya full body type of restraint may be the best option, but it certainly shouldn’t be the first port of call when handling the majority of cats. If a cat is unsafe to physically handle, chemical restraint (i.e. sedation) is always preferable.  

The study also highlights the importance of individual differences in cats’ response to being handledsuggesting cats that are less comfortable around people may find handling (and in particular ‘Full body’ restraint) particularly stressful or unpleasant, as may male cats in general. 

Finally, the study also identifies several practical behaviours which can be measured in cats to determine how comfortable they are in a handling context – these include the position of their ears, their breathing rate, pupil dilation, how often they lick their lips, how much they struggle and finally how quickly they move away once released. Next time you are observing a cat being handled – look to see how many of these behaviours you notice. 

What can I do to make sure my cat has pleasant handling experiences?  

For veterinary professionals: 

 Dr Moody very kindly gave us her thoughts on how the results of her study can influence how we handle cats. 

The validated parameters can be useful to cat handlers, whether in a veterinary, shelter or laboratory setting. When handling cats, it’s important to constantly read and interpret the cat’s behaviour. If handlers are seeing a lot of negative responses (high respiratory rate, dilated pupils, side facing ears, and lip licking) it is important to remain flexible and alter the way the cat is being handled in a way that reduces the number of negative responses seen. It’s important to consider the cat’s handling experience, because if the experience is really negative, subsequent handling may be more challenging and may increase the risk of injury for both the handler and the cat. Reducing the number of negative cat responses seen during handling can help improve the cat’s welfare during handling and may also create a more positive experience for the handler as well. 

To put Dr Moody’s advice into action, here are some iCatCare resources that might just help: 

  • Luckily for cat owners, there’s an easy way to find veterinary clinics that have been accredited as a Cat Friendly Clinic. You can search for clinics via their post code. There are over 1800 Cat Friendly Clinics in 41 countries. If you reside in the USA, the American Association of Feline Practitioners run a similar programme called Cat Friendly Practice.
  • Watch our handling videos, in collaboration with Feliway, and made specifically for owners and those working with cats to demonstrate how to handle cats in the best way possible. We cover everything from grooming, to health check to how not to handle cats. 

Article reference: 

Moody, C.M., Picketts, V.A., Mason, G.J., Dewey, C.E. and Niel, L., 2018. Can you handle it? Validating negative responses to restraint in cats.Applied Animal Behaviour Science,204, pp.94-100.  

This piece is edited from an article first published in Your Cat magazine, written by Lauren. We are extremely grateful to both Lauren and Your Cat magazine for their generosity in allowing us to utilise and repurpose this article and helping us share cat science to improve the understanding of cats internationally. 

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