Friday, October 6, 2017

Can clicker training improve the welfare of shelter cats

cat, clicker training, cat training
Can you clicker train a cat and what are the implications of clicker training shelter cats

Do you think you could train a cat? What about a cat in a potentially stressful environment? And can old cats learn new tricks?

US-based researchers recently published their Assessment of Clicker Training for Shelter Cats(Kogan et al., 2017) in animals to determine if clicker training was viable. They recruited 100 healthy shelter cats, male and female, ranging from 6 months to 12 years old, with varying lengths of stay at the shelter, to perform four behaviours: touching a target, sitting, spinning and the good-old “high-five”.

The rationale for assessing clicker training is that it is regarded as behavioural enrichment, and enrichment is known to have some mitigating effects on stress. As the authors write, “being housed in a shelter is likely one of the most stressful living arrangements these cats have ever encountered…”

Yet those cats were able to learn: 79% learned to touch a target, 60% learned to spin, 31% mastered the high five and 27% learned to sit. This does not include the cats that almost mastered these skills, for example the cats that motioned to sit but didn’t achieve bottom-to-floor contact.

To find out how they did it, you can read the paper and email the authors for their clicker training manual. But it wasn’t too hard. All cats were pre-assessed for their baseline skills but also, which food was their favourite, as this was chosen as the reward (ultimately 62% got canned tuna and 38% got chicken baby food). All cats who wanted it had ten minutes per day of contact with a person. In addition, twice a day they had five- minute training sessions.

There are some useful lessons in here for those interested in training cats. 
Promisingly, cats who initially didn’t seem that interested in food could still learn the behaviour. And some “shy” cats who didn’t want to leave their cages warmed up after a short period.

The great news was that age and sex didn’t impact learning, though cats that were food motivated did perform better at high-fiving and targeting.

Why is this such a big deal? The study didn't prove that clicker training improved feline welfare or the rehoming rates of trained vs untrained cats (nor were these looked at in the study). But, the authors argue that clicker training may be an inexpensive, viable way to enrich the lives of cats in shelters, reduce stress and thereby make them less vulnerable to diseases like upper respiratory tract infections. It relieves boredom that they may experience with confinement.

And some of these behaviours involve approaching and engaging with humans, and other studies show this makes cats more appealing to potential adopters. That is critical, given that in the US around 3.2million cats enter shelters – and around 70 per cent of these are euthanased.