5 min read

Let's be fair to scaredy cats

<p> Frania Shelley-Grielen<br> </p>

A new study in the Journal of Comparative Psychology seeks to compare "personality structure" in five species of cats including the domestic cat. While studies looking at personalities of any animal are worthy endeavors, this study is fraught with enough flaws in experimental design to give pause to why peer reviewers would find the conclusions to have external validity. More seriously, the poorly realized conclusions contribute negative impact to the general view of domestic cats.

To conduct the study, researchers polled zoo keepers and shelter workers on their take on the personalities of Scottish wildcats, clouded leopards, snow leopards, African lions and domestic cats. At first glance, what is of interest is how one might validly compare zoo animals, which are born and raised and housed in the same captive environments to domestic previously owned house cats who are being temporarily housed in shelter environments. The comparison between these two groups is problematic due to the "confounding variable" of experiences/relationship to captivity and how this is expressed in personality. While reactions to captivity can be compared, they need to be compared equally. The zoo cats can be compared to each other as having similar experiences of being captive in standardized zoo housing. Shelter cats are infamous for reacting with high degrees of stress to being newly captive with all its attendant severe traumas and changes in a new and unfamiliar environment which is often perceived as hostile.

The use of pejorative terms to describe human personalities especially when applied to stressed, reactive and newly captive cats in a shelter environment borders on anthropomorphism in the most negative sense. Cats in shelters are called "neurotic " in the study, we can fill in the attendant negative connotations of the word. The researchers define neuroticism here as "fearful of people," "suspicious" and "insecure." The description can aptly describe any cat who has lost his home and been thrust into confinement in a small metal cage in an unknown place attended to by strange people, sights, smells and sounds- it does not however describe the domestic cat's personality.

The study further stumbles by asking zoo keepers and shelter workers to rate their own charges. Statistical tests seek to filter out observer bias but more valid results might have been obtained by polling keepers who were not responsible of the animals for more objective observations.

Veterinarian and animal behavior expert, Steve Dale said about the study ""What this study did was take an inkling of truth, position it to get headlines, and as a result - and I am quite serious about this - misconceptions about cats are perpetuated. Those misconceptions allow humane trap/neuter/return programs to be cancelled. Those misconceptions lead to fewer veterinary visits (compared to dogs), and more cats given up to shelters (than dogs) and fewer adopted from shelters." That and it's bad science too.