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The behavioural perspective


Human and animal behaviour often combine into a perfect storm of obesity-causing actions.

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In many ways, says Sarah Ellis, the artificial selection that has taken place on domestic cats has been eminently sensible. There is, however, one notable aspect in which it has been distinctly lacking – and she argues it helps explain why more and more of these animals are overweight.

‘There’s been very little done genetically to change how a cat wants to obtain food and what it needs when we’ve domesticated it,’ points out Ellis, head of cat advocacy at International Cat Care.

The cat is genetically programmed to go and find food

‘The artificial selection that we have done on the cat has been much more about its ability to live with humans, its ability in some senses to live alongside other cats and, when we look at pedigree cats, of what they look like. But we haven’t done any selection pressures on stopping them hunting, for example. And if you’re a hunter, you’re very opportunistic, and you’re not going to turn down any food, because you don’t know when your next meal is going to come. So if you think about it, the cat’s genetically programmed to go and find food.’

Yet, of course, in a domestic setting it is not in an environment in which there should be a need to do that – or indeed one in which the travel and effort that would be required in the wild, and which keeps the weight off, is necessary.

‘In many cases [the domestic cat] doesn’t even have access to the outdoors, it may well competing with other cats in the same home environment, and food is put in front of it every single day,’ Ellis points out.

‘So we’ve got so many issues going on there – we’ve got a cat who is not going to say: “No, I’ve had enough, thank you, that’s my nutritional need met for the day, I’ll leave the rest”; we’ve got a cat that’s potentially living alongside other cats who it feels are competitors, so it may eat more and faster – get it while you can. And we’ve got a cat that can’t exercise. So we’ve got so many mismatches really in how we keep our pet cats.’

Exercise opportunities

‘We always think about outdoor cats having this opportunity to exercise and indoor cats having a higher risk, but if you live in a very dense urban area with lots of other cats, it could be very intimidating to go out. We think there may be another group of cats who don’t get as much physical exercise as their owners think they get, because they’re just too anxious or there’s too much competition in the local neighbourhood.’

Jon Bowen, lead for behavioural medicine referral service, Royal Veterinary College

That is all before human behaviour and psychology are factored into the mix. As Ellis points out, the human relationship with food is a complicated one. ‘We eat for so many different emotional reasons – for boredom, when we’re in pain, when we’re unhappy, as a social activity.

‘The food that an owner provides their cat is going to be influenced by many of those [same] emotions. So an owner that’s been out at work all day long may feel very guilty that they’ve left the cat. That might not be a problem in the cat’s eyes at all. But the owner may overcompensate by feeding the cat.’

For Jon Bowen, who runs the behavioural medicine referral service at the Royal Veterinary College, addressing this mismatch between human and animal beliefs about food is crucial to addressing cat obesity. There is a need to redirect the very human desire to show love for an animal onto other, more appropriate, activities, he says.

‘Ultimately cat owners really want their cats to be happy, and it may be that they don’t quite understand them well enough which is why they make the mistakes that they do,’ he says. ‘If we can start to get them to offer other kinds of interactions and do other things with their cats, and they can see that the cat is responding very positively, then that acts as a replacement for the thing we don’t want them to be doing – giving too much food.’

According to Bowen, the ‘trick’ of dealing with obesity ‘is not to focus on obesity’. He suggests the message from the professional to the owner should not be about a desire to stop overfeeding the cat, but instead an offer to help meet the cat’s needs in a more effective way.

‘In a sense, you’re tackling the psychological element to it from another direction as opposed to trying to manipulate the person into doing what you want by threats about health. You’re saying, well, I understand what you want. Because your cat gives you a lot, you want to be able to give him a lot back. Well, I can give you some ideas about how you can do that even better than you are now.’

He suggests there is no reason this sort of approach couldn’t be adopted in general practice as well, to help in situations in which a pet has become overweight. ‘You don’t need any specialist knowledge to explain this to people,’ says Bowen (though he does recommend The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat by John Bradshaw to any veterinary professional keen to understand more about this area). ‘You need a few communication tricks to be able to get the message across to owners, but in itself it’s a really simple message.’

Bowen continues: ‘What you’re trying to do is get to the point where they feel they understand their animal better. If you know what a tail up greeting means, you know what that trill means, you know what the slow eye blinking means, you know what it means when they sit near to you but don’t touch you – if you understand all of those things, and you can understand them in the context of the way that humans relate to each other, that we have social conventions that we don’t like to have broken, usually that’s the key thing that helps to make sure that owners continue with weight control.’

You have to adapt the games to what they want to do

Focus on human psychology

‘You’re not going to have an impact on the health of companion animals unless you recognise you need to work with people. It’s fundamental.’

Sarah Ellis, head of cat advocacy, International Cat Care

For Ellis, there is particular value in helping owners understand that a meow does not always translate to a plea for food. ‘Kittens meow to one another but adult cats do not tend to,’ she explains. ‘The cat has evolved the meow really in its adult life as a communication tool to humans – and we have really reinforced that. The cat has learnt “if I meow, if I annoy you, you’ll feed me”. And the cat often meows for other things – attention, wanting [to go] outside – but owners are not always good at interpreting those different meows.’

Encouraging cat owners to recognise a cat’s need for physical activity is as important a tool in fighting weight gain as driving understanding about their food needs, she argues. And this is an area in which the veterinary healthcare team could start to make a real difference reasonably quickly, she says.

‘So many owners don’t think their cats play, but it’s because they’ve been playing with them in the wrong way, or they just have a basket of toys that sit out – the majority of cats won’t go in and rummage through those toys and pick some out.’

It may also be necessary to prepare owners for the need to acquire several toys and that their cat’s interest in any individual one will wax and wane. ‘That’s normal – it’s not something to worry about,’ says Bowen. ‘You just need to keep those toys and drag them out again regularly.’

There is also the challenge that play behaviour enjoyed by one cat may be entirely different from that enjoyed by another. ‘We find that some cats are very interested in things that fly through the air, and other cats like things which are on surfaces, so they’re probably more ground predator directed,’ reports Bowen. ‘This is probably because predatory behaviour in cats is quite diverse. And some of them become very good at certain kinds of predatory behaviour, and they find it very exciting, and others find something else exciting. You just have to adapt the games to what they want to do.’

Ellis points out games can also valuably extend to feeding. ‘The veterinary practice is so well geared to selling puzzle feeders,’ she muses.

She also contends that pet food manufacturers could do more to encourage their use, perhaps placing such feeders in the cat food bag. Because, while she does feel that there are ways in which the whole veterinary team can use knowledge of animal and human behaviour to confront the pet obesity epidemic, Ellis maintains that the true solution will only come through a multidisciplinary approach.

‘The team approach is the only way we actually get true behavioural change. And the greater the buy-in from different parties, the greater the impact.’

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