It’s a Friday evening in the Oldfield Animal Teaching hospital, and while most of the faculty has checked out for the weekend, Ph.D. research fellow Kristyn Vitale Shreve finds herself in the classroom with a few students. Some are sitting nicely in chairs, but others are jumping on desks, wandering the room or sniffing each other. These “students” are kittens between four and eight weeks old, accompanied by their owners to Shreve’s six-week training and socialization course.
Shreve is studying human-cat interaction, a little-studied subject, and she’s making strides to find out more about how cats feel about their owners and vice versa.
Her research is funded by a grant from Purina and will inform her thesis. Shreve has offered the course several times and finds participants from all over the Corvallis community.
Each Friday evening, she gives a brief lecture and then turns the kittens and their owners loose to practice tricks or behaviors for a reward of pureed chicken on a stick.
Cats are often thought of as aloof, independent and untrainable, but Shreve says that’s because of our perceptions of cats, not because of the cats themselves.
“Every cat has a different personality,” she says. “Some cats do really well in the class. Some don’t like to practice behaviors in the room, but as soon as they get home, they want to do it. It’s more about giving the owners tools and teaching them basic training principles so they can implement them in a way that works for them.”
Shreve says cats have always been her favorite animal, and they helped inspire her to study zoology at Kent State University. After that, she earned a master’s degree in environmental science from Miami University in Ohio, where she wrote her thesis about a colony of 30 farm cats and their social behaviors.
When she came to Oregon State for her Ph.D., Shreve decided to focus on human-cat interaction after taking a class with Monique Udell, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences in the College of Agricultural Sciences.
“Before I came here, I never thought about training my cats,” Shreve says. “But part of Dr. Udell’s class was training an animal, so I trained my cat, Cecilia, to jump over a bar.”
Shreve says Cecilia, who was seven years old at the time, opened her eyes to a world of possibilities in terms of training.
“You can train just about any animal using the same principles you use to train dogs or cats,” Shreve says. “I’ve seen papers on training snakes, spiders and even snails.”
Shreve says research about human-cat interaction is lacking, and she’s hoping to fill the gaps with what she’s learning from the kittens and humans in her training and socialization classes.
The goal of the classes is to provide kittens a chance to socialize, to teach them new behaviors and to strengthen the bond between kittens and their owners.
The kittens learn to come when they’re called, walk on a leash, sit and stay.
The kittens who participate are tested before and after the six-week class to determine if they are more attached to their owners afterward. So far, Shreve says the results depend on the cats themselves.
“There’s a definite spectrum,” Shreve says. “But one thing I think would surprise people is that we’re learning that most cats do actually enjoy being social. In class, cats are more motivated by play and social interaction than they are by food.”
But Shreve admits there’s still a lot to learn. For now, she’s dreaming of a world where cats are just as valued and loved as other pets, reducing the number that are abandoned, surrendered and euthanized.
“Cats outnumber dogs by more than 10 million,” Shreve says. “I think if people understood cats a little better and were able to connect with them, they would be less likely to abandon them. Everyone should learn to respect animals and to communicate well with their pets.”