Feline Four or Five?

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the animal welfare science and bioethics Journal Club I am involved in. We meet fortnightly to review articles of relevance to animal welfare, behaviour, and bioethics. The intention is to broaden and disseminate knowledge within the research group and question and improve on our existing ideas and methods.

This week, it was again my turn to select and present an article – and of course I chose one involving cats! (it’s no secret that I am a crazy cat lady)

But I also chose this article because I am interested in behavioural profiling (of humans and animals) and wonder if this will be a requirement of animal-based research in the future. Will we have to declare the temperament of our test subjects in the same way as we record their sex and ages?

The article I chose to review was:

Litchfield, C. A., Quinton, G., Tindle, H., Chiera, B., Kikillus, K. H., & Roetman, P. (2017). The ‘Feline Five’: An exploration of personality in pet cats (Felis catus). Plos One, 12(8), e0183455. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0183455

It is published in an open-access online journal here.

A few words on personality profiling in humans

One of the most widely used personality profiling devices in humans is the ‘Big Five’. It is based on ‘common language’ descriptors of personality. Each ‘factor’ consists of related traits and characteristics that fit within them. An individual’s personality is determined by where they sit on the continuum for each of the five factors.

The five factors are commonly known by the acronym ‘OCEAN’:

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism
Who wrote the article and why?

Human psychologists and ecologists in South Australia and New Zealand (Victoria University of Wellington) were involved in the study. It is part of a larger project (Cat Tracker Project) aimed at tracking pet cats in South Australia and New Zealand.

It is interesting that there appears to be no input from animal scientists – behaviour or welfare. A quick perusal of the reference list indicates that a large volume of feline behaviour and temperament literature appears to be overlooked – or at least not referenced. And, as the authors wrote about animal ‘personality’/expressivity, or behaviour profiling, it also seems absurd that Francoise Wemelsfelder’s Qualitative Behaviour Assessment (QBA) work was not referenced.

The Journal Club group also discussed the idea of ‘personality’ in animals. Many of us thought ‘person’-ality was the wrong terminology to use when discussing animal traits. The preferred term is ‘temperament’. It was our view that the human-centric approach taken for this study has resulted in this wording. I only wonder at why the article was not instead named ‘An exploration of ‘purr-sonality’ in pet cats…’ – at least this has an adorable human-centric approach.

The authors set-out to “analyse personality in a large sample of pet cats – using personality inventory completed by the owner”. Their research question was “how many reliable and interpretable factors depict personality in pet cats and what traits do they represent?”. They based these questions on previous research which have used: small sample sizes, wild/captive cats or those with behavioural problems – rather than ‘normal’ cats, researchers evaluating cat behaviour – rather than animal carers, and insufficient inter-rater reliability assessments.

Methods used

An online survey in South Australia and New Zealand collected information about 2,802 cats. It used 52 items based on a previous survey of Scottish Wildcats. Cat owners were asked to rate their cat on a Likert scale, according to how far they felt each trait was applicable. The authors used a type of exploratory factor analysis called ‘principle axis factoring’ (a technique similar to Wemelsfelder’s ‘principal component analysis’) to understand the relationship among these reported traits. This enabled them to group traits under common headings/factors.

What did they find? (results)

They found FIVE ‘factors’ (common headings for a group of traits) that explained ~47% of the variance in personalities:

  • Neuroticism
  • Dominance
  • Impulsiveness
  • Agreeableness
  • Extraversion

Interestingly, the authors chose to deal with items that ‘cross-loaded’, or loaded onto multiple factors, by assigning the item ONLY to the highest loading factor.

Why cat personality?

The authors drew our attention to some benefits of this type of research, namely: grouping compatible cats in multi-cat households and providing more hiding places for neurotic cats. A low/high score in an area could also improve the welfare of that cat by encouraging owners to seek advice.

The main issues we had with this article
  • The authors appear to have not considered animal (welfare or behaviour) scientists or a range of feline behaviour references in their article;
  • Reference to Francoise Wemelsfelder is sorely lacking – using 52 items from a Scottish Wildcat study also seemed unusual when the intention was to steer away from references to ‘wild/captive’ cats;
  • No consideration was given to the human-animal bond and how attached an owner was to their cat and/or how well they knew their cat – could this have contributed to a reporting bias for some owners?;
  • The labelling of 4 of the 5 personality factors were reasonably well explained, but the sudden inclusion of the fifth (‘extraversion’) appears contrived. We had to wonder if they were trying to force it to fit ‘Feline Five’ – it was too similar to the human list (see above);
  • Assigning items that cross-loaded ONLY to the highest loading factor ignores the complexities inherent in ‘personality’/temperament profiling.

Overall, this study is a great example of the importance of research collaboration. Think outside the (litter) box. 

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    Exploring end-of-life management of old and chronically ill cats

    My second study towards my PhD is well under way. The recruitment phase started on social media (Facebook and Twitter) with a call for cat owners to participate. Interested cat owners who have put down their cat in the last 6 months are redirected to an online survey which takes them through a few quick questions. These are to help us interview the right people.

    We want to make sure we are interviewing cat owners who recently euthanased their pet. If it was too long ago then the vet involved may not remember enough details for their (separate) interview. The cat owners, and their vet, must also be in New Zealand. The interviews are done in person so I need to be able to visit them. We are also asking owners to tell us why the cat was put down. If it was due to a disease that lasted a long time, or because the cat was older, then we might get more information about tricky decisions that were made. On the other hand, a cat that was put down because it was involved in an accident would probably provide much less information. The owners also need to give us permission to contact their vet for interview and leave us enough information to contact them.

    We have also had a write-up about the study in VetScript – the magazine for The New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA). An email has also gone out to all NZVA members. Massey University has got on board with an article on their website and the study has been shared through their social media channels. These various initiatives are helping get the word out about the importance of the study and how to participate.

    Why am I doing the study?

    The research seeks to uncover how the owners of older cats or cats with chronic disease perceive the role their vets have played in the euthanasia process, before comparing this to the vet’s own understanding of their involvement. We are also looking at the decision-making process and how cat owners, and their vets, are making euthanasia decisions. This improved understanding of what drives owner behaviour would safeguard older cat welfare and further inform vets of their role in end-of-life management.

    How can you get involved?

    If you are a cat owner who meets our criteria, or you know someone that might, please take the time to visit our online recruitment page and answer a few questions. This should only take 5-10 minutes of your time.

    If you are a veterinarian and you think you might have a client that would be happy to chat to me then please direct them to our online recruitment page.

    If anyone has questions about the study they can get in touch with me at: K.Littlewood@massey.ac.nz

    My Research

    As I finished my postgraduate diploma last year I was recently asked by Massey University to complete a graduate profile for their website. This gave me a chance to reflect on my research and where I am heading with my career. I also thought it would be a great opportunity to write my first blog post – using a combination of the questions Massey supplied me and a few of my own:

    Kat Paws B+W
    Kat Welfare Matters Facebook Page

    What is your thesis title?

    Quality of life assessment in geriatric cats

    Please expand on your research topic and why it appealed.

    I am undertaking research in animal welfare. My PhD focuses on the assessment of quality of life (QoL) in companion animals, specifically as it relates to end-of-life or euthanasia decision-making in cats.

    I have been trained as a veterinarian to detect, diagnose, and treat animals – often with the intention of extending their lives. As the level of veterinary care available to cats has improved, many of these animals are living longer. This, coupled with the popularity of feline pets in New Zealand, has led to an increase in the number of geriatric animals. But is this increase in life expectancy also representative of a good QoL? How can we assess this? And, more importantly, how can we help pet owners and veterinarians improve their end-of-life decision-making to safeguard animal welfare?

    I am focusing on the methods currently available to assess QoL in companion animals, and how these could be improved upon to better assist owners and veterinarians in making end-of-life decisions. I will explore the factors that influence end-of-life decision-making in geriatric cats, and cats with chronic disease, from both the owners’ and veterinarians’ perspective. I would like to know what processes veterinarians and owners are currently using to make end-of-life decisions, including what is being taught in undergraduate veterinary science curriculums across Australasia. I am particularly interested in geriatric cats and/or cats with chronic disease whose slow progression, and eventual death, may result in them being kept alive beyond an ‘acceptable’ level for their quality of life.

    Why did you decide to do a PhD?

    I knew early on during my undergraduate degree in veterinary science that I would like to either become a specialist veterinarian or enter into a research career. After graduating I undertook an internship at a specialist practice in Auckland, followed by some time in general practice, after which I realised clinical practice was not for me. I returned to Massey University in 2015 to undertake a Postgraduate Diploma, with a focus on animal welfare science, and further developed my research topic. I was lucky enough to be selected for one of Massey’s doctoral scholarships and started my full-time PhD in March 2016.

    Why did you decide to do your PhD at Massey?

    Massey University was the obvious choice. It has some of the top animal welfare scientists in the world based in the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre (AWSBC) of the Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences (IVABS). I also jumped at the opportunity to return to the veterinary school and the potential to be involved with future veterinary scientists.

    Describe your study experience/support from supervisors.

    My supervisory team is made up of top representatives of their field. Two are based in IVABS and the third is from the School of Psychology. It is great having a mixed team on my side – we have really interesting discussions with very different points of view. We meet regularly and I feel like I can always approach them for a chat.

    I am also very lucky to have met and made friends with a really supportive group of postgraduate students. It is good to have that support network to share stories with and laugh about the silly things that we do. The IVABS postgraduate team are also very supportive – our lovely administrator goes above and beyond to make our lives that much easier.

    Have you done any internships or leadership programmes while at Massey?

    I was invited to act as a facilitator for VetStart 2016 – a programme for first year veterinary undergraduate science and veterinary technology students. I had enjoyed the programme as a student and was excited to be invited to attend and co-facilitate the same experience for a group of students. The camp involved team-building exercises as well as outdoors activities, experiential learning exercises, and a karaoke evening.

    What are your plans for the future?

    While completing my PhD, I will be studying for the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists (ANZCVS) membership examination in animal welfare. This will bring me one step closer towards becoming a specialist in animal welfare. I hope to continue in the academic/research field and be actively involved in supporting the next generation of veterinarians and animal scientists.