March 2, 2011
Ben and Lynette Hart, companion animal behavior experts at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, seek members of the public to take a survey about interactions between cats and children.
Some evidence shows that domestic cats have a calming influence on people, particularly the elderly, the sick and children with special needs. However, little is known of the mechanisms of those relationships, environmental influences on interactions between children and cats, or a possible genetic basis for human-animal interactions.
The Harts, working with veterinary geneticist Leslie Lyons, have begun a multi-part study to tease out how those relationships benefit children and whether feline genetic traits can help identify positive behavioral characteristics in cats.
Study seeks public input
In their part of the study, the Harts are asking adult cat owners in families with children to respond to an online survey to help develop a picture of children's relations with cats. The anonymous questionnaire asks about the family and the behavior of their cat around children, including its friendliness, aggression and fearful behavior.
A family member over age 18 may take the survey at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/ucdcatbehavior. The survey takes about 15 minutes to complete. Respondents also have the opportunity to provide some personal details about the family cat in a special comments section.
The researchers expect to gather more than a thousand usable responses for their study.
A second study component will contain information from telephone interviews with about 300 families that have been identified as having children with special needs. These families will be drawn from participants in the CHARGE (CHildhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment) Study, a project of the M.I.N.D. Institute.
Genetic components of feline behavior?
As the Harts gather behavioral data, Lyons will be working to characterize certain genes that may affect a cat's temperament: whether it is friendly, calm, aggressive, or bold, for example. In the course of her work, Lyons has collected DNA samples from a wide variety of cat breeds, including some breeds associated with a calming temperament.
Whether a strong connection can be found between certain breeds and their ability to provide a therapeutic effect on children with special needs is open to question, but the multi-pronged approach by Hart, Hart and Lyons may begin to provide important clues.