Telltail: Understanding feline behavior and personality to increase the human-animal bond in order to prevent owner-surrender

Gracia Murris
Graduation Project
Supervisory team: Pieter Desmet (chair) and Wim Schermer (coach)

One of the most enriching relationships of human beings is the relationship between owner and companion-animal, including more specifically the relationship between owner and cat. Cats are relatively easy to take care of and make people feel needed. Owners often see them as a friend, child or partner in the relationship. Many people adopt a cat because they are looking for an undemanding and rewarding relationship that provides social support: a relationship of mutualism, where the owner gives and receives love and affection from her cat.

Cats have similar emotions as humans, which lays a foundation for the relationship; they express emotions, however, quite differently. Therefore, owner and cat don’t always understand each other, which often results in confusion, frustration, annoyance and uncertainty in the owner.The relationship between owner and cat is an emotional one, full with positive and negative interactions. Too many negative interactions could, in fact, eventually lead to an abrupt termination of the relationship.

This project is about the development of the owner-cat relationship and what leads up to the unexpected termination of it: when an owner decides to give up the relationship and surrender the cat to the shelter.The decision to owner-surrender is often grounded in several reasons of the owner. What are some of the reasons that owners decide to surrender their cat? What problems may arise in the relationship? How does the relationship work? And what emotions play a role in the relationship?To answer these questions, this project maps the emotional of journey of owners with their cats and explores the interactions and behavior of owner and cat during this journey.

Owners have different reasons— often more than one reason — for surrendering their cat. Most of these reasons are owner-related, including housing, economic or personal issues, like expectations, allergies or lack of time. Some of the reasons seem to be cat-related, which are mostly because of behavior that is seen as undesirable or problematic in the eyes of the owner, for example house soiling, being unfriendly or being too active.

Many of these reasons, however, are influenced by the expectations owners have of their cat (such as their role in the family), the cat’s relationship with family members and the cat’s behavior, personality and appearance. These expectations are based on the owner’s experience, their knowledge of feline behavior and needs and the motives the owners had for adopting the animal.

Unrealistic expectations and lack of knowledge regarding feline behavior and personality are risk factors for owner-surrender. Increasing the knowledge of owners can be helpful in this respect: coaching them to attribute the right motivations and emotions to their cat, to shift their expectations, and in the end possibly improving the human-animal bond.

For this project a design was created to support new owners in understanding their cat’s behavior and personality to experience mutual affection in the relationship. The final concept, ‘Telltail’ is a product that consists out of several elements that convey knowledge about the cat’s behavior and personality to the owner and facilitate interactions between the owner and cat. It makes use of the four attachment dimensions: 1) knowledge about the cat and its care, 2) behavioral responsiveness to the cat and its needs, 3) interest in and affection expressed toward the cat and 4) time spent with and activities directed toward the cat.

At first the owner chooses an activity to do with her cat. During the activity the owner observes the cat’s behavior. After the activity the owner reflects on her cat’s reaction on the activity and chooses a feline personality trait that suits her cat’s behavior the most. These traits are: skittishness, spontaneity, dominance, outgoingness and friendliness. You can choose a low or a high score of the trait. After doing several activities, the owner has collected several traits that visualizes then her cat’s personality. Based on your cat’s personality the product gives some concrete advice on how to make life with your cat more comfortable.