Study: Spay and Neuter May Be Making Our Cats Less Friendly with Each Generation
Outdoors okay or indoor only?
Commercial diet or homemade raw?
Kitty costumes – fun or cruel?
Punishment – okay or not?
As loving pet owners, we all want to feel the decisions we’re making for our cats are the best decisions, but when it comes to the feline community, there’s a lot of debate over what those best decisions are. Amidst all this however, there is at least one practice that we all agree on - the spay and neuter effort – and for good reason!
Beyond the benefits for us as owners (fewer behavioral problems and no worry about care for and re-homing of kittens) are the shocking and really heartbreaking statistics about the pet community at large. Despite the best efforts of animal shelters, only half of the 6 to 8 million pets brought to shelters every year ever find a new home. 2.7 million adoptable cats and dogs are euthanized each year simply because there are more of them than there are families that want them.
Knowing this, our responsibility as owners becomes clear. Spay and neuter is the only way to control this sprawling over-population and the tragic loss of life that results. Right? “Right, but…” says John Bradshaw, foundation director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol and author of the newly released book Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. As he points out in his book, while feline overpopulation is an important issue that needs to be addressed, spay and neuter may actually be having some unintended negative effects on the domestic cat species as a whole.
Spay and Neuter Feline Personality Study
In a small initial study comparing cats from wealthy areas where spay and neuter rates are highest against cats from less affluent areas where spay and neuter rates are lower, Bradshaw consistently found more friendly confident cats in areas of less spay and neuter and more skittish fearful cats in the wealthy neighborhoods. This, he suspects, is because while poorer families are more likely to have picked their cat as a kitten from a friend’s unfixed cat’s litter, wealthy people, whose friends have fixed all their cats, are more likely to adopt or purchase one.“What we suggest is people [in affluent areas] are getting kittens in from the countryside from feral cats that are a little bit wilder...” Bradshaw explained.
As he points out, though a large part of a cat’s sociability is due to their experience as young kittens, nurture isn’t the only factor affecting their personality. A cat’s genes also play a part, and by fixing almost all of our friendly house cats, we’ve been leaving the vast majority of feline genetics in the paws of their stand-offish feral counterparts. “Neutering is — in terms of biology, in terms of population dynamics — a mortality factor… If you neuter, you've removed its genes from the pools, so when you look at the next population, you have to rule it out.”
Statements made by Sandra McCune PhD in the April 2013 issue of Cat Fancy seem to support this idea. Speaking on the development of a cat’s personality, McCune told the magazine that the father’s genetics seem to hold the most influence. Friendly male cats are more likely to have friendly kittens, while skittish male cats are likely to have kittens that are the same way. “…numerous studies suggest' that the father's personality plays a role - even if a cat never met its father.”
The Future of Felines?
Expanding on his theory in a Fresh Air interview with NPR, Bradshaw posed the possibility that with this knowledge, personality-focused breeding efforts may be used to make future feline generations increasingly sociable.
“Nobody has really focused on the idea of breeding a cat [to be] a good companion. Some of that has happened in dogs, but most of our cats are descended from hunters and animals that we encouraged to hunt, that we kept for their very hunting ability. So we need to, somehow, tone that down a little bit. Some of it can happen by ... giving them other outlets for their hunting. But ultimately I suspect that the cat will only be ensured a future in an increasingly crowded planet if we can generate an animal [that] really doesn't feel the need to hunt. ..In a way, we almost have to start again. We have to think about the cat in the 21st century. What do we want cats for? What kind of cats do we want?"
This said, the pool of cats in Bradshaws’s experiment base was small, and more research would be needed to confirm his theory, which is not shared by the all. In particular, Carlos Driscoll (Doctoral Fellow at Oxford University noted for his work researching feline genetics) has publicly challenged Bradshaw’s hypothesis stating that though there are subtle genetic differences between wild and domestic cats, no studies have ever shown a genetic difference between domestic and feral cats, and in his opinion, too many cats remain unfixed for spay and neuter programs to make any real change in the entire feline gene pool. Meanwhile, the community at large wonders; if Bradshaw’s theory is correct, how should this change the way we approach feline overpopulation?
Bradshaw responds with his own questions, "Are there people feeding them? Are they stealing the food? Is it bad hygiene in restaurants?" He doesn’t want anyone thinking he advocates a return to the days when unwanted cats were sacked and drowned. Rather, he suggests looking at the root of the problem - the food we’re leaving out where they can easily get it. If you cut down the food source, numbers will naturally fall off, he says. Besides this, many cats end up in shelters, not because of a move or lack of funds, but because of behavioral issues in the home. If we began breeding for personality instead of just looks, perhaps we’d have fewer cats with behavioral issues and thus, fewer cats left to roam the streets or sitting in shelters hoping they’re part of lucky half.
What do YOU think?
If we are making cats increasingly unsociable by fixing all the friendliest, should we stop fixing our friendly housecats?
Could increased efforts to remove the human-made shelter and food feral cats are getting really make up for Bradshaw’s suggested increase in unfixed housecats?
Should Bradshaw’s ideas remain academic speculation or do they hold weight? Could acting on them be for the better?