A study by animal behavior expert John McGlone theorizes cats scratch more due to pheromones left behind from previous cat scratching.
Originally published July 15, 2015
Cats have long been some of the most independent and unpredictable animals on the planet. They were revered by Egyptian pharaohs and have been used as symbols by many cultures for their grace, elegance and demeanor.
Predicting their behavior, however, has long been a mystery, one which scholars throughout the ages have studied. Figuring out what a cat wants, when it wants it and how it wants it has led to numerous theories and studies.
Now, one professor in the Texas Tech University College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources may have unlocked the answer to at least part of what a cat is thinking when it comes to what that cat prefers to scratch.
John McGlone, a professor of animal welfare and animal behavior in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences, presented this week his study on cat scratchers, which scratchers cats preferred and why. His research was delivered during the 2015 Joint Annual Meeting (JAM) of the American Dairy Science Association (ASDA) and the American Society of Animal Science (ASAS) in Orlando, Florida.
Using kittens due to their playful nature more than adult cats, McGlone and his research team tested various cat scratchers to determine which one cats preferred. Knowing which cat scratcher kittens prefer will help people select effective cat scratchers. Cat owners want to direct cat scratching towards selected objects rather than having them scratch furniture, drapes and carpet.
The team then used that preferred scratcher to determine what causes kittens to spend more time scratching. The experimental evidence suggested kittens deposit pheromones from scratching and from their fur. The thinking is cats are attracted by pheromones, chemicals excreted or secreted by animals that trigger a social response in members of the same species.
“We are hypothesizing that kittens are responding to pheromones on the cardboard scratchers and the next kitten that comes in experiences the scratcher smell of other kittens' odor and it makes them scratch more,” McGlone said. “We will be able to direct cat scratching towards preferred objects and away from household objects like furniture.”
Before McGlone and his team could get to why cats scratch certain scratchers more, they had to go back further to determine which scratchers cats preferred in the first place.
No empirical data
A walk through the local pet store will reveal dozens of products for cats. The only problem is there is no real research or consumer-driven information that indicates which product is the best buy.
“If you're buying a car, you can look up how it performs in fair government tests, what the miles per gallon is for any car,” McGlone said. “If that's your criteria for buying a car, you can get one with really good gas mileage. If you pick up a piece of food at the store you can see what's in it. But you go to a pet store, you can hardly get any information on anything they are selling. So we began to evaluate this in our study to see if we could increase or decrease cat scratching.”
McGlone purchased several types of scratchers – flat, rope, hemp and tower scratchers as well as making some of their own, utilizing cardboard, carpet and bubble wrap. Some scratchers were vertical, some were horizontal on the ground and some were on raised platforms. The idea was to test as many types of scratchers as possible.
An evaluation also had to be done on which cats to use, adult or kittens. Kittens, unsurprisingly, were more playful and active than adult cats. While it is thought that adult cats can be manipulated to become more playful when fed dried catnip, as sold in stores, they determined catnip applied to the scratchers did not change the rate of scratching.
From there, kittens were placed into a controlled environment with different types of scratchers and observed to determine which scratcher they preferred. After all the testing was done, the results showed kittens preferred the cardboard scratcher in the shape of an ‘S' over all other scratchers.
“Nobody's done any sort of official approval for cat scratchers,” McGlone said. “This was an opportunity to answer these questions and help people and animals.”
Saving the drapes
Now that McGlone had the right type of scratcher and the right kittens, he tested what made cats use the scratcher longer.
“We do know when a cat grooms itself, it licks the hair all over its body, its paws included,” McGlone said. “We know a cat is continually applying its scent on itself, and cat hair is a much more potent stimulator of scratching than is catnip, for example. That cat hair contains pheromones.”
One at a time, kittens were placed in a controlled environment meant to simulate a normal living room, with a couch, drapes, carpet and the ‘S' scratcher along with a human being to both record the kitten's activity and place the kitten on the scratcher if it wandered off.
The first test determined that kittens preferred an older ‘S' scratcher to a newer one, which strengthened the hypothesis regarding cat hair and pheromones. But it didn't completely validate the hypothesis.
In the next test, researchers applied different objects to the scratchers to see if they induced scratching. The researchers used hair from an adult cat, ground catnip and catnip oil, applying each to a separate scratcher.
Catnip oil had some effect, but overwhelmingly, kittens preferred the scratcher with cat hair on it.
Also, researchers discovered that a kitten will scratch a new scratcher for a certain amount of time, then each subsequent kitten that scratches that scratcher will do so for increasing time lengths.
McGlone said the theory of cats being territorial doesn't hold up because kittens have no sense of territory. They're just playing.
“Odors do strange things to animals,” McGlone said. “It makes them eat more, it makes them more sexually active and it makes them play more.”
The next step, McGlone said, is determining exactly which pheromone affects behavior. They are doing organic chemistry and animal behavior work to identify the molecules involved, and once that is determined, that pheromone can be applied to scratchers to induce play and keep drapes and furniture safe.
“Kittens might stay away from an adult male cat,” McGlone said. “Maybe we can use pheromones to stop cats from scratching the couch, or maybe if they're so interested in the cat scratcher they'll forget about the couch. There's more than one way to get this goal accomplished.”