Interview with Feline Behavior Specialist, Dr. Sarah Ellis

While studying for a Post Graduate Diploma in Companion Animal Behavior Counselling, Sarah Ellis, discovered that she loved learning about cats. At the same time, she realized that there were so many questions about this “wonderful species” and that she wanted to know more about them.

Currently, a feline behavior specialist at the charity International Cat Care, Sarah has worn many hats. I interviewed her recently by email about three of them: researcher, writer, and educator. 

ALLISON: Let’s start with your first childhood memory of a cat.

SARAH: I had a cabin bed as a child which had lots of shelves, cubby holes, and a pull out desk with a den space underneath. Needless to say, my cat, a big Burmese named Claude adored it. I spent many an hour reorganizing cat bedding and decorating cardboard boxes to make dedicated sleeping and play places for him within the cabin bed. He slept with me every night. My mother has a photo of me asleep with him curled round my neck with my head in a cardboard box!


Photo provided by Sarah Ellis
Photo provided by Sarah Ellis

ALLISON: You wrote your thesis on sensory enrichment. Why is sensory enrichment important? What is one easy cat owners can add sensory enrichment to the lives of a cat?

SARAH: I did indeed! While it was entitled enrichment, I believe now we need to think about environmental needs rather than environmental enrichment because we are talking about things that are fundamental to a cat’s well-being rather than ‘it would be a nice added extra if they can x, y or z.” Cats are such sensory beings and it is so important we consider their sensory biology in all our interactions with them and in how we set up our homes for them.

I think one easy thing all owners can do is not an ‘add-on’ but a ‘take-away’ and that is to ditch their air fresheners, particularly those that automatically spray at random intervals. For a cat, the smell has be perceived as aversive and the unpredictable hissing sound an additional stressor.

Instead, think about scent continuity in the home with newly introduced smells being relevant to the cat. For example, bringing a small amount of the outdoors indoors may be enriching for some cats: a cardboard box with some dried leaves, a few pine cones, things from the natural world they can explore through sniffing.

ALLISON: What conclusions did you draw from your research into cat households with large numbers of cats and whether individual cats should be housed singly or in groups?

SARAH: The research on households with large numbers of cats (20 or more cats) was really interesting as these were people who would not be considered animal hoarders by definition because, despite having large numbers of cats, the cats were all well cared. However, when the psychological profile of these owners were compared to those of owners of one to two cats, owners of 20 or more cats were significantly older, scored significantly higher pet attachment scores, and displayed significant positive relationships between hoarding behavior and anxiety. Such a profile demonstrates greater similarities to clinical animal hoarders than to typical cat owners on these particular measures, although additional disparities with clinical animal hoarders exist in the areas of functioning, veterinary care and home organization. Taking this information together, the studied population may represent the understudied group of early stage animal hoarders. In hoarding cases, early intervention can be extremely to help prevent ongoing suffering of both the animals and the hoarder themselves.

The research on housing cats in confined settings such as homing centers as pairs or singly was a critically appraised topic designed to address the following question: For cats kept in confined environments, does single housing compared to multi-cat housing result in changes in physiological and/or behavioral measures of stress? Despite many studies investigating this topic, we actually only found six papers (out of an initial sweep of 959 papers) that met our criteria for relevance to the research question. It is a complex area, and what the studies taught us were there are so many factors to consider, such as social history of the cat and disease control. I’d always say the least risky in terms of both physical health and mental well-being would be to house singly. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule.

ALLISON: What did your research tell you about the best way to handle a cat?

SARAH: Stick to the head and the facial regions. You may be heading into trouble if you venture down to the base of tail, particularly with unknown cats, and if you have a tendency to stroke more than a few fleeting strokes.


ALLISON: Why did you write The Trainable Cat?

SARAH: I felt so many cats were struggling with daily activities that come with being a pet cat (being groomed, going to the vets, coping with visitors in the home) that could negatively impact on their mental well-being and in turn, their physical health. Cats are smart and I knew if we invested the time in teaching them some life skills, life as a pet cat could be an awful lot better for them.

ALLISON: What are the top life-skills cats need in order to live with people?

Photo provided by Sarah Ellis
Photo provided by Sarah Ellis

SARAH: First and foremost, a cat needs to be socially comfortable living alongside people. The Trainable Cat is not about trying to teach unsocialized cats to miraculously enjoy being in a home environment, living in close proximity with people. In many ways it’s about the top life-skills an owner needs to learn,  to associate everyday events in a cats life with positive outcomes so the cat learns to enjoy them.

ALLISON: How can we provide ways for cats to use their natural instincts in our homes?

SARAH: Opportunities to climb, to play in a predatory manner (chasing a small toy), and to use their senses to explore are really important. Regular play sessions with a wand toy, ample climbing opportunities through cat trees, platforms and shelving systems, and puzzle feeders are all great examples of how we can achieve this.

ALLISON: What is the main tip you’d give to anyone who wants to train their cats?

SARAH: Find out what your cat loves. Your cat has to be motivated to obtain the reward to work with you. A mediocre cat kibble just won’t cut it for some cats, so find out what really excites your cat and you are the first step there.

ALLISON: Why should cat owners care about training cats?

SARAH: I feel strongly that it is a part of our duty of care to our cats. We should be protecting them as much as possible for negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, and frustration. We should also be training our cats to cope with events such as receiving medication, a trip to the cattery, and physical health examination to protect them from some of the negative emotions that such encounters could cause without positive reinforcement training.


Photo provided by Sarah Ellis
Photo provided by Sarah Ellis

ALLISON: What have your learned from being a feline behavior specialist at International Cat Care?

SARAH: I now have a new role since October 2019 as Head of Cat Advocacy at the charity. What I have learned is the passion for cats is worldwide and the appetite for understanding more about our cats is so strong across the globe. Sharing our skills, knowledge and experiences will only make the world a better place for cats.

ALLISON: You’ve worked with cats for over two decades in a variety of contexts. How have those experiences shaped what you know about cats?

SARAH: I think working across many contexts, you learn that every cat is an individual with its own set of individual circumstances. Also, you are never just working with a cat–you’re working with its owner or caretaker too, and those relationships are so varied and unique.

ALLISON: Why do you think there are so few researchers studying cats?

SARAH: I think for so long, the domestic dog was the chosen subject due to its social nature and its close association with people. However, published studies of cat cognition, behavior, and welfare are hugely on the rise which I’m absolutely delighted about. People find the fact that the cat can be both a solitary and a social species fascinating, as is its ability to live with and without us, walking the line of domestication. Researchers seem much more confident to take the challenge on of studying such an enigmatic species.

ALLISON: How we change the attitude that cat misbehavior is just “cats being cats”?

SARAH: I’d challenge the change the word misbehavior (of the cat) to misunderstanding (of the owner)! I think when people see how possible it is to train cats, they realize cat behavior is malleable and extremely influenced by our own behavior.

Editor’s Note: International Cat Care is a charity with the vision of a world where all cats, owned and unowned, are treated with care, compassion, and understanding. It works closely with the veterinary profession through its veterinary division, the International Society of Feline Medicine. For anyone interested in learning more about cats, International Cat Care offers course for both cat owners and professionals in the area of cat behavior.

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