Thursday, February 19, 2015

Veterinary behaviorist seeks participants from Ann Arbor area for upcoming study on conflict, aggression between family cats

Conflict and social tension amongst family cats is a problem that is all too common and can upend a household, leading pet owners to do whatever they have to do to keep the peace. Manifested by behaviors like passive blocking, staring, minor skirmishes or exchanges that escalate into fighting, it can at times necessitate the need for cats to spend time in separate parts of the house. 

“Cats are the number one pet: there are 81.7 million owned cats versus 72 million owned dogs. More cats are relinquished to shelters and disharmony between pets is a common reason for relinquishment," says Theresa DePorter, a veterinary behaviorist at Oakland Veterinary Referral Service (OVRS) based in Bloomfield Hills.

Last year, DePorter lead a study to see if a synthetic pheromone diffuser from Ceva Animal Health would be effective in decreasing aggression amongst household cats. Pheromones are chemical signals produced naturally by an animal — in this case, cats – to communicate with each other. They are released by rubbing, spraying or scratching areas to leave "messages".

She adds, "Estimates suggest only 4 out 10 cats who enter shelters make it out alive. We need to help cats get along with housemate cats so they can stay in their homes." 

That said, it can also be difficult to ease a new cat into a household. And Bombay, a 1 year-old tabby cat, is an example of that scenario. He's also a success story stemming from that study.
Bombay is a success story from the 2014 study.
Photo courtesy of Theresa DePorter

After being found as a stray (the owners were never located), Bombay joined a family that included 4 other cats, and it wasn't long before the skirmishes started. Bombay chased, tackled and bit while the other cats responded in kind by hissing, screaming and swatting. His owner, Susan Holland, is practice manager at the Michigan Humane Society and remained dedicated to resolving the issue, as she didn't want to rehome him — despite the knowledge that there was peace amongst the other cats previously. 

After pre-qualifying and then entering the study, Holland noted that by the two week mark, the "cats were out together more. I had to decide if some interactions were aggression or play! This was more playful than they have been in 6 months. I am thrilled to have the cats be social again."

45 multi-cat households with felines that exhibited aggression (more accurately defined as conflict/social tension) toward one another participated in the double-blind, placebo-controlled study, with 20 of the households being given the pheromone diffuser and 25 having received a placebo diffuser. The diffusers were used for a period of 28 days, and the participants kept a daily journal documenting any aggressive events as well as a weekly Oakland Feline Social Interaction Scale, (which assesses the frequency and intensity of 12 aggressive interactions, like biting, swatting, staring, blocking, vocalizing, etc.) 

The results of the study definitely show promise. The OFSIS scores were similar at the beginning, but by day 7, the mean OFSIS score of the pheromone group was measurably lower than the group getting the placebo. By day 21, the response was even better. That trend continued not only until the last day of the diffusers use, but beyond. Click here to read more results from the study.  

On the heels of success in the pilot study (which interestingly included households where felines exhibited aggression toward one another for an average duration of 822 days), DePorter is eager to recruit more cats and their humans to participate in a follow-up study, with enrollment continuing until April 28th. 

Though pheromone diffusers will still be the focus, this trial will be longer — 15 weeks — and DePorter is seeking only 70 households to take part.  Those aren't the only ways that this trial will differ from the previous: there will be no placebo group. Instead, this will be a comparative trial between two test formulations that are akin to each other. 

In order to be considered for the study, participants must first meet criteria with a prequalification screening. 

From there, participants will be required to attend one enrollment meeting, two of which are being held in Ann Arbor on April 6. At the meeting, DePorter will explain the complexities of feline aggression, how cats communicate (for example, body posturing), feline social structure and more. Attendees will also learn about what to do (or not do) when aggressive behavior between cats is present. Cats do not attend this meeting. 

DePorter, who has most recently written for Psychology Today in the 'Decoding Your Dog' series emphasizes, "It’s a safety and quality of life issue for cats and for owners. What is remarkable to me is that many of these cats have been fighting for years and years. These owners are dedicated to their cats but torn by the anguish. Understanding the cats innate motivations and responding with kindness and respect is essential to improving a cats welfare."

To learn more about the study, including how to be considered for participation, click here or contact Dr. Theresa DePorter by emailing or visit the OVRS website.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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