Is there a bias against stray cats?

Does your kitty have a history? Photo by Galawebdesign via Wikipedia/Creative Commons

I think most of us who adopt a kitty from a shelter (especially if they are an adult) wonder about their past life, before we brought them home. Who fed them? Were they born under a bed or under a bridge? But how important is it to adopters to know that their cat previously lived in a home, with people? A new study, “Is There a Bias Against Stray Cats in Shelters?” suggests that there might be a bias against stray cats with an unknown history.

The authors of the paper, Kathryn  Dybdall and Rosemary Strasser, did three studies. In the first, they examined shelter records of adult adoptable cats (12 months or older) who had been listed as either owner-surrender or stray. Owner-surrender cats tended to be adopted on average in 26 days, compared to 32 days for stray cats.

Second, the authors did a study to see if there were differences in 56 randomly selected owner-surrendered (N=25) and stray (N=31) cats in latency to approach a visitor (a “mock” potential adopter), time spent close to the visitor, and whether these behaviors were related to the time it took the cat to get adopted. While there were no statistical differences between the two groups of cats in time to approach or spent with the person, there were differences in adoption time, with the owner-surrendered cats taking 19 days on average to get adopted, and 28 days for stray cats. Furthermore, time to approach the mock adopter influenced adoption time for stray cats only – meaning that the longer they took to approach a person, the longer they stayed in the shelter. If they were previously owned, their behavior toward the mock adopter had little influence on how long it took them to get adopted.

Finally, a web survey of college students compared ratings of how likely the participants felt they were to adopt different cats (a 5 -point Likert scale that went from “very unlikely” to “very likely”). For each cat, the participant was given a photo and information on the cat’s age and sex. If the cat was owner-surrendered, they also were presented with the cats name, reason for surrender and social history (it’s not clear what this history entailed). For stray cats, they were given information about where the cat had been found. The trick was that 12 of the images were shown twice – once in mirror-image, and assigned to both a previously owned and stray profile (there were also six “sham” images added to reduce repetition of images). Overall, cats that had been presented as previously owned scored higher on adoptability ratings than strays.

Do stray cats have a disadvantage once they are in the shelter? Photo by Frank Vincentz via Creative Commons License

All three studies suggest that previously-owned cats have an adoption advantage. The third study could be replicated with stronger controls, as it could be that having a name and any behavioral information (the social history) – even just more descriptive words – could make some cats seem more adoptable. Giving stray cats names, and providing information like “enjoys playtime” or “loves cheek rubs” could be just as useful as “previously lived with dogs” in helping people connect with a potential pet. Targeting a pet-owning or adopting population for the survey with these controls would have me slightly more convinced that it is the stray vs previously owned category that is driving this effect.

However, the adoption times did show a clear difference between the groups (stray and previously owned) – I would love to know if the cats up for adoption had the same amounts/types of information available to adopters. Perhaps it’s not that these cats are stray, but HOW they are presented to potential adopters that leads to them taking longer to get adopted. This new study adds some new knowledge about the factors that might help cats get adopted, and will hopefully lead to more studies that can help us help all cats get adopted in a timely manner, whether they were previously owned or not.

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