Turns out that petting and talking nicely with shelter cats isn't just an awfully pleasant way to spend the afternoon. There's now scientific proof that this kind of behavior also helps keep the cats healthy -- a finding that sounds adorable, and could have some seriously great implications for the cats.
For the study -- published this month in the journal Preventive Veterinary Medicine -- 96 shelter cats were divided into two groups. One group got positive interaction with the same person for 10 minutes at a time, four times a day, for 10 days. This interaction, which could include petting, brushing and playing among other agreeable things, is called "gentling."
The control group cats were treated to a researcher standing in front of their cage with eyes averted, for that same duration.
All 96 cats selected for the study had been deemed healthy and content -- as opposed to anxious or frustrated -- at the beginning of the study. At the end, the cats who got gentled were found to have maintained their content dispositions, and were less likely to have developed an upper respiratory disorder.
The control group cats were less content, and more sick.
Seventeen of 49 cats in the control group developed upper respiratory disorders, compared with nine of the 47 cats in the group treated to gentling.
(In case all this is making you consider a career as a cat researcher: these findings were determined in part by looking for evidence in the cats' poop. So, thank you scientists.)
Animal welfare consultant Nadine Gourkow, one of the two researchers who conducted this study, told The Huffington Post she found a "strong association between positive emotions induced by gentling and good health."
The idea is that the cats' contentment stimulates production of an antibody, which helps fight upper respiratory disorders.
"We have learned that the domestic cat is very responsive to good treatment by humans," said Clive J.C. Phillips, a professor of animal welfare at the University of Queensland, and the study's other author.
The pair plans to continue research in this vein. Next up is a study looking at what gentling methods are most effective. (Gourkow will also soon launching a website teaching shelters how to implement her findings, and other ways of keeping their cats healthy, happy and adoptable. Here's where that'll be, once the site goes live.)
Phillips said that he suspects the same effect could be found in other shelter animals, like dogs with kennel cough, and he is sure "this is important in the home as well as the shelter."
Though, not Phillips' home. His wife is allergic.
"However," he said, "the study has emphasized to me how sensitive pets are, including my dog, to gentle treatment."
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