‘Owning’ The Responsibility Of Stray Cat Care
Stray cats exist in most urban neighborhoods. Feral or semi-feral cats may avoid us, but others are more familiar with humans and form relationships with us in some way. Many of the cats that are able to connect with humans end up being supported by us, often by feeding. However, research has shown that people who feed cats that they perceive as “not owning” (sometimes called “semi-owners”) can support excessive breeding, increasing the number of unwanted cats since most stray cats aren’t sterilized. Understanding people’s perception of their relationship to the stray cats they support and the psychology of semi-ownership could help us figure out ways to deal with the detrimental impacts of the practice.
This study set out to explore these relationships and perceptions. The primary aim was to identify factors that contribute to a person perceiving they “own” a cat, and what influence these factors have on them interacting with and taking care of the cat. Researchers also wanted to determine a way to distinguish people who “own” cats from those who are “semi-owners” and from those who have casual interactions with stray cats.
The study hypothesized that cat owners and semi-owners would see their relationships with the cats they were supporting differently, resulting in different types of interactions and caretaking behaviours— such as sterilization, microchipping, and confining the cat to the owner’s property—that promote overall better cat welfare. To conduct the study, the researchers collected data using a voluntary online survey with those who self-selected as “cat owners” answering one set of questions, and those who did not identify as “cat owners” answering another. The submissions were narrowed down into 1013 surveys that were used in the study, collectively providing human-cat relationship data for 1305 cats.
The relationships between humans and cats were defined as casual interactions (respondent did not perceive themselves as an owner and engaged in interaction and feeding occasionally over a period of less than one month), semi-ownership (respondent didn’t perceive themselves as the owner but had interacted and fed the cat for a month or more), passively-acquired (respondent perceived themselves as owning the cat and had acquired the cat passively) and actively-acquired (the respondent had actively acquired the cat and perceived themselves as the owner). Of the cats identified in the survey most (605) were actively-acquired, 249 were passively-acquired, 98 were semi-owned and 353 had casual relationships with humans.
The survey also asked respondents questions about their beliefs, attitudes, types of interactions, and caretaking behaviors, to determine if there were differences across the human-cat relationship types. It was found that respondents who identified as cat owners and semi-owners displayed similar types of interactions with the stray cats in their care (such as playing with the cats and giving affection) but cat owners were more likely to engage in caretaking activities (including vet checks, confinement, sterilization) than were semi-owners. Additionally, humans were more likely to interact and engage in caretaking behaviors with cats they were in semi-ownership relationships with than they were with cats where their relationships were casual.
A variety of factors were found to influence a person’s perception of cat ownership including association time, attachment score, perceived cat friendliness and health, and psychosocial attitudes related to feeding stray cats. Results indicate that semi-owners may be more susceptible to social pressures that could influence their caretaking behaviors.
Overall, the results from the study could represent a potential point of intervention for animal advocates: encouraging semi-owners to engage in more caretaking behaviors, such as sterilization, may result in a reduction in the number of unwanted kittens, and could be a useful alternative to trying to simply prevent semi-ownership. Semi-owners may also become advocates themselves, helping to change perceptions of other semi-owners they interact with. Being able to distinguish casual from semi-ownership human-cat relationships, as this research allows, can also assist advocates in developing strategies to address issues of abandoned and unwanted cats in our communities.