Authors of a new study are attempting to clear up some confusion after several news outlets ran stories saying that petting cats could lead to increased stress in felines. Without the clarification, the study could have led to some cat-astrophic changes for felines and their owners.
The study was published in the journal Physiology and Behavior, and several articles about it came to the wrong conclusion. Is the natural habit of petting your cat leading to increased stress? the articles posited, leaving many cat owners afraid they'd been unintentionally harming their pets.
Researchers from the University of Veterinary Science, Vienna, addressed the situation in a letter clarifying their research and findings. The aim of the study was to determine if cats living in a multi-cat environment were more stressed than cats living in a single-cat environment. The researchers separated the 120 cats, from 60 Brazilian households, in the study into three groups, the first featured 23 single-cat households; the second group had 20 multi-cat households with two cats; the third group had 17 multi-cat households with three or four cats.
The owners assessed the behavior and disposition of their pets, such as “timid” or “bossy,” and asked if cats liked to be petted. Stress was measured by determining the level of stress hormone metabolites found in fecal samples. The vast majority of cats enjoyed being petted (85 out of 120), and the researchers believe the wrong conclusion arose from the wordng that 13 cats "tolerated" being petted by their owner. These cats did not like to be petted but allowed their owner to stroke them, increasing the level of stress and skewing the results as these cats were more stressed than others. Co-author Rupert Palme said in a statement, "Cats are in no way generally stressed when they are stroked. It depends much more on the situation and the character of the individual animal."
As for the study and its actual conclusion, the number of cats in a household did not affect stress. Rather, the relevant factors included the amount of space the cat had, access to food, socialization and the relationship with humans that shared the same space.