Anxious cats aren’t comforted by objects that smell like their favourite person – and these reminders could even make them howl more in their owner’s absence.
Most pet cats form strong bonds with their caretakers and appear to find their presence reassuring. However, unlike human babies, cats don’t accept scent alone as a worthy stand-in for the people they have bonded with, says Kristyn Vitale at Unity College in Maine.
“Olfaction is an important sense for cats, and it’s related to their social behaviour, but in our study, [owner-scented objects] did not have a stress-reducing effect,” she says. “The smell might even make matters worse for some cats.”
Cat owners are sometimes told to leave an item of their clothing with their pets when they have to be separated from them, such as in a pet hotel. To see whether this practice is actually helpful, Vitale and her colleagues asked 42 cat owners to bring their cats and something that smelled like themselves – a shoe, a sock, a nightshirt or a blanket – to an unfamiliar testing room.
Each owner sat in the middle of a 2-metre-wide circle on the floor, while their cat was allowed to roam freely throughout the room. Then the owner left the cat alone. Afterwards, the cats experienced one of two sequences. For some, their owner came back, then left them alone again, and then finally a scented object was left in the room with the cat; for others, the object was presented first and then the owners returned after the cat had been alone for a period.
The majority of the cats showed signs of bonding with their owners, rubbing against them when they returned to the room and meowing nervously when they were absent, says Vitale. Regardless of which sequence they experienced, the cats generally paid no attention to the scented object and didn’t act any calmer than when they were alone without the object.
In fact, 38 per cent of them were more vocal when the scented object was in the room than when they were alone without it. Many of the cats even appeared less reassured by their owners’ presence if they had been given the scented object as a substitute first.
That could be because cats need more general social interaction with their owner. “Things like warmth, touch and vocalisation could all be important as well,” she says.
The findings suggest owners could do most cats a favour by not leaving them with their odors during absences. Instead, owners could try to be physically present with their cats – whenever it is reasonable to do so – if the cat needs to experience a new environment or other stressful situations.
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