Feline Anthrozoology: The Study of Cat-Human Relationships!

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Kris Hill from the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) shares some feline highlights from the International Society of Anthrozoology (ISAZ) 2023 Conference.

What is Anthrozoology?

Anthrozoology is the academic study of human interactions with other animals (including cats!).

The annual International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) Conference was held this year (June 15 – 18) in Edinburgh, Scotland. SCAS Trustee Dr. Sandra McCune gave a keynote address on the history and future of human-animal interaction research and its use in policy and practice.

The conference programme included varied and insightful presentations from scholars and professionals from around the world who are working in the field of human-animal studies. And although the field is much broader, companion animals, including cats were central to many themes and talks.

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Author’s cat!

Remember to remove the cats from your luggage before travelling!

Cat-Assisted Counselling

Purrfect Partners: A Deep Dive Into Cat-Assisted Counseling was a workshop organised by Dr. Elizabeth Hartwig from Texas State University and Cynthia Hodges, MEd, from Peace Alcove Counseling.

Although their use in animal assisted interventions has received less attention than dogs and horses, cats can be very effective therapeutic partners. This workshop explored different aspects of incorporating cats in a counselling setting, including the qualities of a good therapy cat, an assessment protocol for cat counselling teams, and how to encourage clients to have positive interactions that increase human-cat affiliative behaviours. The workshop was led by Dr Hartwig, who founded the certified Animal Assisted Counceling Academy at Texas State University. Cynthia is a licenced councillor who, together with her cat, Texas Red, were one of the first teams to graduate from the programme.

During the 2.5-hour workshop, participants engaged in experiential and interactive activities using videos that demonstrated Cat-Assisted Counselling (CAC) skills and training. The organisers facilitated some interventions so that participants had an idea of CAC interventions they could include in treatment plans. Some of us participants may have gotten a little too excited when the organisers teased us by saying they had bought some cats for us to work with! Here is mine.

Photo taken by author.

During the workshop we practiced on each other how we might introduce a client to our cat. And we got to take our ‘cats’ home with us as a memento.

Research into Cat-Human Relationships

Several presentations focused primarily on cats and cat-human relations.

Ginny Thomas from the University of Exeter, UK, studies the wild/domestic dichotomy of how humans feed wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris) versus feral domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) and what this means for the re-introduction of the European wildcat to parts of Britain.

Julia SL Henning from the University of Adelaide, Australia, presented research findings to show how play is a behaviour may assist in establishing and maintaining healthy human-cat relationships, which in turn may improve cat welfare and human wellbeing.

Kris Hill, also from the University of Exeter (and SCAS communications officers and author of this blog!) presented some of her doctoral research into cat-human relations.

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Photo taken by Sandra McCune.

Peter Sandøe from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, presented the results of a study that shows how cats are kept and managed in rural Denmark. He reported a shift towards fewer farm cats, much more control of reproduction and more ID-tagged (microchipped or ear-marked) cats during the past 24 years. This helps explain the drop in number of unowned cats in Denmark.

Janette Young and colleagues from the University of South Australia are developing baseline data in order to measure the health of indoor cats to facilitate health equity between aged care residents and foster cats.

Other research that might benefit cats and their humans!

Many talks engaged with research related to companion animals, including cats. For example, Animal Hoarding Disorder is a mental illness that has devastating effects on the humans affected, their communities, and causes immense animal suffering. Unfortunately, cats seem to be most affected and are less likely to survive a serve hoarding situation. Research into intervention, treatment, and prevention is paramount, and Katherine O Compitus presented an integrative treatment model for Animal Hoarding Disorder.

A wealth of research is being conducted on the human-companion animal (pet) bond and the role of pets in human health and wellbeing (the subject this year’s annual SCAS conference, to be held virtually on 17 September 2023). Roxanne Hawkins from Edinburgh University presented her research on the role of the human-pet bond in how young adults self-manage their mental health. Animal-assisted therapy/interactions (AAT/AAI) involves companion animal species being used in therapeutic or learning contexts, and research in this area also looks at the welfare and wellbeing of the animals involved in these activities.

Research into animal welfare in the context of animal shelters is also being conducted. For example, Bailey Eagan presented encouraging findings from a study of how gabapentin can reduce stress (and consequently increase rehoming success) of cats rescued from hoarding situations. Lexis H Ly from University of British Columbia, Canada, presented their research into the predictors of successful diversion of cats and dogs away from animal shelter intake through a self-rehoming website.

Workshop on Pets in Housing

On the final day, SCAS hosted a workshop on Pets & Housing: Global Challenges and Solutions, led by Sandra McCune and Elizabeth Ormerod. Since it was first established in 1979, the Society of Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) has campaigned to raise awareness about the unfairness and the many harmful consequences of ‘no pet’ clauses in tenancy agreements for rented homes. This includes supporting academic studies and conferences, partnering with advocacy groups and charities campaigning for policy change, and engaging with various stakeholders.

Photo taken by author.

The workshop presented some of the research carried out by Holly Dalby from the University of Stirling on behalf of an international steering group on Pets and Housing Issues, initiated by SCAS. Participants answered a series of questions around access to pet-friendly housing in their own countries which will be incorporated into a whitepaper being developed by the international steering group.

Cat with a snorkel hiding in the back of a toilet

Copyright, SCAS 2023

I suspect many people can relate to hiding their feline companions from a landlord at some point, but hopefully not in the toilet! This image was printed on a postcard, and delegates were asked to write down what they can do to contribute to research, or activities aimed at helping keep pets and people together.

Interested in a career studying cat behaviour or cat-human relations?

There were so many interesting talks and so much to take in, so I apologise for anything I missed! If you look at the profiles of this year’s presenters you may notice they are trained in a wide range of disciplines, including psychology, animal behaviour, anthropology, and sociology, all of which can contribute to our understanding of cats and the cat-human bond.

However, research into cat behaviour and cat-human relationships has a lot of catching up to do with many more studies on dog behaviour and dog-human relationships.

World-renowned cat behaviourist, Dennis Turner, recently reflected on the questions that remain unanswered. This is well worth a read for anyone interested in cats, but especially students considering making a career out of studying cats (rather than just studying with cats).

For anyone considering studying anthrozoology, there are a growing number of universities and colleges around the world offering courses in Anthrozoology and related subjects.

Follow us on FB and Twitter (@SCASuk), and be sure to retweet posts from us and our partners on #PetsInHousing

SCAS is the UK’s leading human-companion animal bond organisation through funding research, providing education, raising awareness, encouraging best practice, and influencing the development of policies and practices that support the human-companion animal bond. For more details check out our website at www.scas.org.uk

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