Spotlight On Science: Veterinary background noise elicits fear responses in cats while moving freely in a confined space and during an examination



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New research out of Dr Lee Niel’s lab at the Ontario Veterinary College in Canada was recently published as a study entitled ‘Veterinary background noise elicits fear responses in cats while moving freely in a confined space and during an examination.’

Lead author Nicole Furgala, Dr Carly Moody (iCatCare Feline Wellbeing Panel member), and other colleagues examined cat responses when exposed to common veterinary clinic and shelter (homing centre) environmental noise, such as kennel doors closing, people talking, and dogs barking.  

The team at iCatCare were interested to learn more about this study, as our Cat Friendly Clinic programme is all about identifying and reducing possible sources of stress in veterinary clinics. iCatCare’s Cat Advocacy Project Manager Alex Taylor, RVN, interviewed the lead researcher Nicole Furgala to learn more about the study. 

1) Why did you decide to do this particular study? 

We know companion cat caregivers have a reduced willingness to take their cat to the veterinary clinic, and research has shown that cats can show signs of fear, including aggressive behaviours, during examinations. At the time, Dr Carly Moody was finishing her PhD work in the Niel Lab examining cat welfare during handling, and we knew that handling can have a negative impact on cats. However, we wanted to identify other stressors contributing to negative cat experiences in [the] clinic. Since cats are acutely sensitive to noise, we wanted to investigate whether background noise commonly heard in a clinical environment may be contributing to stress, specifically fear responses seen in [the] clinic. 

 2) Can you give our readers a short description of your methods, including how cats were chosen for the study, why you chose specific sounds, and why an unfamiliar person test was necessary for cats in experiment groups 1 and 2?

 We wanted to re-create common background noise commonly heard when cats undergo routine handling and examinations in environments such as veterinary clinics and animal shelters. The noise track included dogs barking, people talking, and kennel doors shutting because these are common types of noises heard. To make it as realistic as possible, we recorded the sounds individually, then layered the sounds at particular time points, such that sometimes the sounds would play together or individually, and we also included time points of silence. We matched the frequency and noise levels of our audio to measurements we took in veterinary clinics.  

To investigate whether background noise contributes to feline stress and fear, during veterinary visits, we first had cat owners bring their cats to a veterinary clinic where I administered a mock routine veterinary examination. I had previously met with a veterinarian at the Ontario Veterinary College (co-author Dr Shannon Gowland) who helped me choreograph a standardised routine examination, similar to what is regularly performed with cats at our on-campus primary care clinic. Companion caregivers and their cats were recruited from the local community and randomly assigned to either a noise condition, in which an audio track was played consisting of common veterinary noises, or a silent condition where no audio was played.  

In experiment 1, I was unfamiliar to the cats and performed the mock veterinary examination. All cats in experiment 1 underwent an unfamiliar person test since many veterinarians are unknown to the cats they examine. This allowed us to account for differences in individual cat responses to the unknown handler. An unfamiliar person test was not performed in experiment 2 because there was no handling during exposure to the stimulus, so willingness to interact with an unfamiliar person was unnecessary. 

In experiment 1, cat behavioural and physiological indicators of stress were assessed during the mock veterinary examination and compared between conditions. In experiment 2, we wanted to assess the impact of the noise track without handling. For this part of the research, we collaborated with two local animal shelters. Cats were allowed to freely roam in a confined space while measuring behavioural and physiological stress responses, either with or without the audio track. Here, we compared these measures between conditions (noise condition or silent condition). Within each condition, we additionally compared cat’s responses during a baseline reading (pre-condition), to their responses during their allocated condition (audio track condition or silent condition) to be able to measure individual variability to better understand the effect of the noise track on the cats. 

 3) What physiological and behavioural stress responses did you measure and why? 

 We chose to measure previously validated physiological and behavioural measures of stress in cats during handling (Moody et al., 2018). Dr Carly Moody ran this research in the Niel lab during her PhD, and thus helped formulate the study methods. The validated measures included negative ear position (ears back or flat), lip licking, escape attempts, struggling, respiratory rate, and pupil dilation. We also assessed additional responses that have been associated with fear and stress in cats, including tail position (wrapped around body, lashing), body position (crouched, crawling, freezing, hiding), vocalizations (meow, yowl, growl, hiss), and increased heart rate. 

4) How did you ensure the welfare of cats taking part in the study was maintained throughout? 

The welfare of our cat participants was of the utmost importance during these experiments. During the mock veterinary examination, I used a passive or minimal restraint technique given evidence from Dr Moody’s research showing that passive restraint is a lower stress handling technique. This restraint allowed the cat the ability to choose how they were situated on the examination table.  

If a cat was not allowing me to complete a particular portion of the examination, I moved onto the next phase of the exam; nothing was forced. The study was immediately stopped if any cat showed signs of aggressive behaviour (experiment 1) or showed excessive attempts to escape or hide (experiment 1 and 2). 

5) Give us a summary of the results from the two experiments. 

The results of this study measured how cats responded to background noise in two experiments undertaken in different environments; experiment 1: during a mock veterinary physical veterinary examination, and experiment 2: during free movement in a small enclosure. In both experiments 1 and 2, heart rate and respiratory rate were found to be elevated in the noise condition. However, negative behavioural responses, indicative of fear, stress and aversion were only displayed in cats that were exposed to background noise during free movement (experiment 2). 

6) Why do you think experiment 1 showed physiological changes in the noise condition compared to the silent condition but not behavioural changes?  

Cats in experiment 1 were exposed to several different stressors and this might have resulted in ceiling effects where their responses were already elevated and could not go any higher with the addition of the audio track. Additional stressors included transportation to the facility, exposure to the clinic environment, the mock examination, and handling, all of which were unrelated to our audio stimulus. We were able to detect increases in stress behaviours in response to the audio in experiment 2 when cats were not exposed to these secondary stressors. Experiment 1 and 2 results show the difference between conducting field research and controlled experimental trials that isolate the effects of specific stimuli. A benefit of controlled research is that animal responses to particular stimuli can be isolated, and not muddled with other factors.  

7) How significant do you think this study is for those working with cats? 

This research provides scientific evidence that we should be reducing environmental background noise, particularly those sounds considered aversive by the cat such as loud unpredictable noises and threatening sounds, such as a dog barking, as much as possible for cats. Such noises can be potent stressors.  

The results are also applicable to cats in animal shelters (homing centres) and other confined settings such as boarding catteries and grooming parlours. We hope this research brings awareness that background noise can be stressful, and we should be mindful of reducing environmental noises to help create a lower stress environment for cats. I hope this study encourages veterinarians and other cat professionals to consider how their clinics or confined settings can be modified to create a more cat friendly environment.  

 8) What impact could the results of this study have on the welfare of feline patients visiting veterinary clinics and why? 

 Based on the results of this study, if environmental noise levels within veterinary clinics are reduced, cats are expected to have reduced stress during handling for physical examinations, which can contribute to more accurate medical assessments and to a more positive experience for cats, the veterinary team, and caregivers. 

9) How do you think cat caregivers can benefit from the results of this study? 

There are many challenges and barriers to bringing cats to the veterinary clinic. For example, caregivers can feel stressed when they see their cat showing signs of stress, and this may lead to a reduced willingness to bring their cat back for future veterinary visits. By reducing stress in feline patients, we can help make the clinic experience more positive for both the cat and the caregiver, which in turn can help increase caregiver willingness to bring their cat back for future visits and veterinary care. 

10) What surprised you most about the results of this study?  

One thing that surprised me was the results of the unfamiliar person test. Out of 32 cats in experiment 1, 16 were categorised as friendly (11 males, 5 females) and 16 were categorised as unfriendly (5 males, 11 females). I did not expect to have such an even distribution, particularly with the number of unfriendly cats. It also brings up more interesting questions regarding how individual variation can impact behavioural and physiological responses to stressful stimuli.  

I was also thrilled to use a quantitative measurement technique to assess pupil dilation in cats (in contrast to subjective assessment). This measure was previously validated as a way to assess pupil dilation during negative handling (Moody et al., 2018), and it was highly effective for measuring physiological arousal in response to our noise stimulus. Measurement of pupil dilation is becoming more popular as a method for assessing physiological arousal in animals, and I am excited to see further use of this innovative technique in the field of animal behaviour and welfare science. 

11) What other studies do you think might be useful to help reduce stress in feline patients, are there any specific areas that need to be explored? What are your future research plans?  

Our results build on research showing that veterinary visits (including transportation, clinic environment, handling, etc.) are quite stressful for cats. Our results show that environmental noise elicits behavioural and physiological stress responses in cats, but many other potential stressors have yet to be studied. Future studies should look beyond the examination room and investigate cat care and management ‘behind the scenes’, such as in the treatment area, as well as in short-term in-clinic housing. We should also evaluate positive changes that might help alleviate in-clinic stress, such as enrichment objects, music, or olfactory stimuli. Having evidence-based recommendations to create Cat Friendly Clinics is the goal!  

12) If you have one cat friendly tip for our readers, what would it be? 

Find a certified Cat Friendly veterinary Practice (USA) or an accredited Cat Friendly Clinic (worldwide) for your cat! I would also encourage caregivers to keep their cat carrier in an accessible area within the home with the lid off (if possible), add some treats, initiate play near or in the carrier and keep a comfortable blanket inside. This can help your cat associate the carrier more positively as a bed, and not a scary carrier associated with a car ride or trip to the veterinarian.  


Reference: Furgala NM, Moody CM, Flint HE, Gowland S, Niel L. Veterinary background noise elicits fear responses in cats while freely moving in a confined space and during an examination. Behavioural Processes. 2022 Sep 1; 201:104712. Abstract can be read here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0376635722001292 

Coming soon in November 2022 are two new sets of Cat Friendly Guidelines: 

  • 2022 ISFM/ AAFP Cat Friendly Veterinary Environment Guidelines   
  • 2022 ISFM/AAFP Cat Friendly Veterinary Interaction Guidelines  

They will be published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery and will be freely available through guidelines.jfms.com

Interested in learning more about the effects of stress on cats and how to mitigate them? Have a look at our courses:    

  • Introduction to Feline Behaviour and Health:  

https://courses.icatcare.org/product?catalog=BGKCC-OD 

  • ISFM Cat Friendly Professional:

https://courses.icatcare.org/product?catalog=CFVP0-OD 

  • Advanced Feline Behaviour for Cat Professionals:  

https://courses.icatcare.org/product?catalog=ABCP0-TS-A2022 

  • ISFM Advanced Feline Behaviour for Veterinary Professionals: 

https://courses.icatcare.org/product?catalog=ABVP0-TS-A2022 



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