By Peter Wolf and Sue Neal

A recent Forbes article estimated that two-thirds of U.S. households have at least one pet. So, even if you’re not a pet owner, you probably know people who are. Either way, you’ve seen the human-animal bond in action. In this case, it’s probably no surprise that 97 percent of owners consider their pets family, according to the Pew Research Center.

A Dog Is Not a Cat Is Not a Bird

What might be surprising is that scientists have developed tools to measure quantitatively how attached we are to our pets. But attachment is an abstract construct; how exactly should we measure it? Expenses associated with food, toys, supplies, veterinary care, and all the rest are one obvious indicator. The grief we feel at the loss of a pet is another. Different measures will, of course, reflect different aspects of attachment. Our depth of grief is not necessarily proportional to the cost of ownership.

The comfort from companion animals scale (CCAS), first tested in the early 1990s, was developed to understand better a very specific aspect of attachment: “the perceived level of emotional comfort owners received from pets.” 1 In its original form, the CCAS was a 13-item survey. It was soon discovered, though, that two items were likely to yield higher scores for dog owners than cat owners. Once those items were removed from the survey, the difference in scores disappeared.

Source: NastyaSensei/Pexels

A cat is fed outdoors.

Source: NastyaSensei/Pexels

A Cat Is a Cat

Although the 11-item CCAS addressed one important source of bias, the survey was designed for pet owners. But community cats are, by definition, unowned—and therefore not strictly pets. These are the cats—common to virtually every community—who are cared for by residents (often from more than one household) but owned by no one.

The CCAS instrument required only slight modification to make it appropriate for measuring the “perceived level of emotional comfort” community cat caregivers receive from the cats they look after. Typically, this involved replacing “pet” with “community cat.”

We distributed the revised version of the CCAS as an online survey to clients of Alley Cat Advocates (ACA), a non-profit organization in Louisville, Kentucky, that provides sterilization and wellness care for community cats in and around Jefferson County. We received 295 responses from caregivers indicating they had provided food, water, or shelter to one or more community cats within the past 12 months.

This is the first time this type of scale has been used to measure caregiver attachment to community cats. As caregivers ourselves, we hypothesized that their scores would be similar to those obtained in earlier studies of cat owners. In fact, they were virtually identical.

Other Measures of Attachment

In addition to attachment scores, our survey gathered basic demographic information from respondents. Our findings, published in the Journal of Shelter Medicine and Community Animal Health, therefore tell us something about who community cat caregivers are. 2 Nearly half reported annual incomes of less than $50,000, compared to the median household income of $61,633 in Jefferson County, and nearly one-third reported yearly incomes of less than $35,000. (To put this into context, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ most recent poverty guideline for a family of four is $26,500 annually.)

Also, caregivers’ financial commitment is noteworthy: Expenditures for food and veterinary care are comparable to those reported by U.S. cat owners, who report spending roughly $47 per month on food and veterinary care combined. One reason expenses aren’t greater for most caregivers is the relatively small number of cats each one looks after. Contrary to images conjured from sensational media accounts, nearly three-quarters of our respondents care for a single group of cats, typically made up of just three individuals.

Small group sizes also allow caregivers to know each of “their” cats as individuals. So we weren’t surprised to learn that many of our respondents become concerned if a cat goes missing. The vast majority of respondents (92.1%) either agreed (37.8%) or strongly agreed (54.3%) that they worry when cats don’t show up as expected.

Source: StockSnap / Pixabay

A cat sits in a busy square.

Source: StockSnap / Pixabay

Policy Implications

Last year, the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) revised its “free-roaming cat position statement,” expressing support for policies and practices that consider “caregivers and their human-animal bond.” This is a welcome shift since the AAFP’s previous statement, published in 2012, did not mention caregivers.

Unfortunately, the caregiver bond is often ignored. As one example (albeit an extreme one), witness the aftermath of an unannounced culling (via shooting) of community cats at the Port of Newcastle’s Stockton Breakwall in New South Wales, Australia. The incident’s impact on caregivers was, not surprisingly, directly related to their feelings of attachment to the cats in their care,

“Evident when the caregivers talked of the individual cats by name and pointed out their favourites, when they voiced concern for the wellbeing of cats who ‘went missing’ after the cull, and when they shed tears over the deaths of the cats killed in the cull during the interview process.”

As a less dramatic but more common example, consider that the “stray” category makes up the majority of feline admissions at many animal shelters. Historically, these cats were at great risk of being euthanized.

Beginning about 15 years ago, though, shelters desperate for an alternative began sterilizing, vaccinating, and returning many of their “stray” cat admissions to where they were found via trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs. The resulting reductions in euthanasia have been well documented. This shift in shelter operations offers an obvious benefit to caregivers. It’s hardly surprising that caregivers are often deeply involved with TNR efforts (e.g., humanely trapping and transporting cats to and from clinics).

No doubt many—if not most—of the cats entering a shelter as “strays” have caregivers (which explains the generally good health of these cats) who would miss them should they disappear, regardless of the ultimate outcome. Indeed, they’re likely to grieve the disappearance of a community cat much as they would the disappearance of a pet. Any distinction we might make between unowned and owned cats is largely an abstraction, a matter of convenience—hardly substantial enough to stand in the way of the human-animal bond.

Peter J. Wolf is a researcher for Best Friends Animal Society and founder of the blog Vox Felina. His professional experience involves the acquisition, analysis, and synthesis of both quantitative and qualitative data, as well as the communication of research findings.

Sue M. Neal is the co-founder of the Veterinary Care Accessibility Project and an Assistant Professor at Arkansas State University. She has a strong research focus and academic background in public policy, GIS, public health, and ethics.

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