Public Perceptions / Outreach
This section covers research conducted in regards to public perceptions or public outreach. Since my Master Plan is centered around spreading awareness to the feral cat populations in Cincinnati, my actions had to include reviewing and collecting public perceptions as well as outreach in the feral cat community. This section contains 5 artifacts created while in the AIP:
- Research conducted to explore if human personality traits impact their preference in pet type
- Personal, at home research using my four cats looking at the best litter substrate in terms of ecological impact and cat preference
- Creation of a website aimed at outreach and sharing feral cat information
- Independent study of the best social media strategies for nonprofits, with direct impacts to TSP’s social media strategies
- Study conducted to understand the awareness of plant toxicity to cats between cat and non cat owners, and our ability to identify plants which are toxic to the domestic house cat
A Comparison between Personality Traits and Dog or Cat Adoption Preference using the Big Five Personality Inventory
Early in the program, I was curious if there were any parallels between human personality types and their associated companion pet preference. It seemed like a natural first step to see if there were any parallels between the Big Five Personality Inventory (BFPI) and human pet preferences, with the hypothesis being that human personality affects behavior (Porpopat, 2009). The BFPI is a test designed to provide a model of comprehending the relationship between personality and behavior (John, Naumann, & Soto, 2008). It was easy to set up the BFPI test online using online tools and a shareable link. I was able to distribute this survey via social media. Survey participants rated themselves on a disagree strongly to agree strongly scale for 44 different personality aspects (ie: I tend to be quiet, I am generally trusting, I am easily distracted, etc.) as well as identified themselves as either a “cat person”, “dog person”, or neither. The BFPI test then divides personalities into five dimensions: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (Toegel & Barsoux, 2012).
My hypothesis was that individuals who self-identify as “dog people” would associate more with the personality dimensions of extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, and those who self-identify as “cat people” would associate more with neuroticism and openness. Common stereotypes suggested that dog people are more social and outgoing, and cat people have a tendency to be more introverted homebodies (Gosling, Carson, & Potter, 2010). Results however suggested that dog people trend towards extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism while cat people trend towards the personality dimension of openness (Figure 1).
This research was important as strong pet attachment has been linked to positive effects on an owner’s mental and physical health as well as assisting with how pet owners deal with their emotions, traumas, and relationships with other humans (Sable, 2012). The benefits for a pet in a proper home is the security of the human-animal bond, with an owner who will provide all the necessary needs for a comfortable and secure life (Sable, 2012). And of course, providing a solid match between pet and owner can help reduce the number of animals in shelters abandoned by previous owners. While not perfect, this study showed trends to how human personality could play a role in pet preference. This information can be useful for individuals deciding on which type of animal to adopt, and can show which type of animal would be best suited for their personalities. If shelters had the capacity to provide personality surveys to potential adopters, there could be a higher chance of better pet placement.
I learned the importance of a diverse pool of survey participants from this research. I didn’t realize until after analyzing the data how biased the candidate pool was. I posted the survey on my social media page, and the overwhelming majority of survey participants were Caucasian females around the age of 30. This of course skewed my data, and helped me to realize how narrow of a community I had surveyed. This was an important lesson as it taught me the importance of running survey based studies with a better representation of the general public. Moving forward, this project initiated my interest in using surveys as a way to collect data and made future surveys more robust, leading to stronger data sets and therefore, stronger conclusions.
Resulting poster from research, presented at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden on December 3rd, 2016.
A Life Change Project in a Cincinnati Suburban Home Comparing Alternatives to Clay Cat Litter
Having a household of four cats myself, I was able to conduct a study at home focusing on my ecological footprint and personal contributions to landfills (Figure 2). This study used my indoor cats to test for the preference of different cat litters, clay clumping, wheat, walnut, and newspaper litter. A side experiment was conducted to see if I could toilet train my cats, however this did not go as planned. The litter aspect of this study was important since clay cat litter is mined from the earth, which has negative environmental impacts. Clay litter has to be harvested via a method called strip mining, which essentially uses heavy equipment to remove top layers of earth and soil to uncover calcium bentonite and sodium bentonite, the two main components of scoopable clay litter (Murray, 2002). Clay litter is so popular in the United States that over five billion pounds are harvested annually, making the US cat litter industry worth over $2 billion dollars (Gross, 2015).
Other more economically friendly cat litter options are available, including litters derived from wheat, paper, or walnuts, which can be collected and spread out as manure, as long as the cats are parasite and disease free (Yarnell, 2004). All of these options offer alternatives to the traditional clay cat litter and can have benefits on the environment as well as the cat. Even though these alternative litters are more expensive than clay litter, they are only priced about 30% more per pound for the most expensive eco friendly litter when compared to clay litter (Laron, 2017).
My hypothesis was that clay litter would be the preferred litter choice for all four of my cats, as this is the only type of litter that they have been exposed to and I had always heard that cats do not take to changing litter types very well. However, the data showed that the cats utilized all four types of litter, with wheat litter being the most utilized bin. Even though wheat litter is more expensive than clay litter, over the past year, I estimate I have only spent about $80 more on wheat litter than on clay litter. With the decrease in environmental impacts, the cats not seeming to mind, and the significant decrease in clay litter dust, it has been a very easy and justifiable switch for me and my cats.
For me, the most significant learning arose from the realization that my cats don’t prefer the clay litter I have been using for a decade. I had thought that clay litter was going to be the preference through and through. Alternatively, the preference of my cats was on the wheat, flushable, biodegradable litter. This could be due to the fact that wheat litter is a similar texture to clay clumping litter, liquids clump in wheat litter and wheat litter sticks to fecal matter in the same manner as clay litter. The most obvious difference to me was that wheat litter has a much more mild scent, and creates significantly less dust when compared to clay litter. Wheat litter is also much lighter, and could be easier for the cats to dig/cover their waste. Having learned this information, I now wonder why I assumed my cats would prefer clay litter and question if most cats, not just my cats, aren’t being offered a litter substrate that they prefer. I have switched all the boxes in my house to complete wheat litter, and have saved about 450 pounds of clay cat litter and cat waste from going to the landfill in the past year. When it’s composting season, I am able to compost the wheat litter and waste material from the litter boxes in my large, expanded compost pile. This makes me feel satisfied, as cat waste was the largest landfill trash producer in my house. I am proud to be contributing less to landfills after doing this study, and this study also forced me to be a better composter. Even in the winter months when I do not compost the cat waste, I still send it to the landfill in a biodegradable bag and the waste material and wheat litter should degrade in the landfill much faster than if it was clay litter and waste in a plastic bag. I had the opportunity to share these findings with some local veterinary technicians, and 3 of them have also switched their household over to wheat litter. I continue to share the results from this study and get really excited when I hear that wheat litter is working out for another cat household.
As a next step, I need to continue sharing this information and suggest alternatives to clay litter to shelters and veterinarian offices in my community. While the price of wheat litter may deter some nonprofit shelters, I do think it is important to let cat organizations know that while a bit more expensive, wheat litter is not only significantly better for the environment, but could be the preference for the majority of indoor cats.
Poster from research, presented at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden on July 29th, 2017.
Feral Cats, the issues they cause and how you can help - A Website
Since improving awareness and sharing ideas on the feral cat problem is a huge portion of my Master Plan, I was excited for the opportunity to create a website from scratch. The goal of this website was to spread knowledge about feral cat problems and methods for addressing these issues. I also wanted to spread awareness for trap and release programs, thereby increasing participation in these types of programs in Cincinnati and beyond. Even if people cannot afford the time or money to be heavily involved in a trap/release project, I wanted my website to show that even small things, like not encouraging feeding and always spaying or neutering your cats, can make a significant difference.
I used Weebly to develop a website that has multiple pages, each explaining a solution to figuring out the feral cat issue. The home page of my website included a description of the issues as well as facts on feral cats and cat reproduction. I included graphs showing how quickly a cat population can grow and statistics on the reproduction and population cycle of cats. I designed a page that describes the process of spaying and neutering, but in reasonably non-gory terms. It is important to have this information so anyone who wants to know more about a procedure can check it out. To me, knowing as much as I can on a topic is the only way to really have a true opinion. I want to provide enough information to give my readers a platform to take a stand.
I was able to politely convince two local veterinary offices to put reference of my website at the bottom of their client receipts for 3 months from June to August in 2017. Since then, I have been promoting my website every chance I can and have been able to link my website into other projects and volunteer opportunities at TSP. Through my work as an adoption counselor at TSP, I have been able to do some self promoting of my website, and a link to my website is included in each adoption packet when someone adopts a cat from TSP.
The most meaningful learning arose from sharing my website with friends and family on my own social media page. At first, I was thinking this was another project for school and no one would really give it the time of day. Alternatively though, after posting my site and sharing via receipts from the veterinary offices, web traffic to my site jumped to an average of 15 site visitors per day from June to August 2017. While attendance to my site has fallen over the past 15 months, I still have reached approximately 1,600 individuals across the United States, Europe, India, Canada, and Asia. This small scale project demonstrated to me just how quickly things can be shared online and how great of a tool websites and online technology can be for sharing a message of conservation. This project helped fuel my interest in the social media research I conducted the summer of 2018, and really demonstrates how conservationists can share our messages online.
Moving forward, I will continue to update and add to the website and find opportunities to share my site to those interested. Statistics are updated, more literature is available, and new information is constantly at our fingertips. The work has just started to keep my website applicable and current to the needs of our feral cat populations around the world.
The Importance of Social Media and Online Presence for Nonprofits: A Study of Social Networking for a 501(c)(3) Cat Shelter
Continuing from my website creation and stemming from my interest in sharing information online, I researched the best social media strategies for non-profit animal welfare organizations. I was able to use this research to assist TSP with updating their social media campaign the summer of 2018. Social media campaigns can make or break nonprofits and nonprofits have to handle their social media presence differently than big businesses or corporations (Taneja & Toombs, 2014). There are several pros and cons associated with a social media presence, and nonprofits have to focus on their reputation as well as sharing their organizational goals via a virtual world (Harris & Rea, 2011). By using existing literature and discussing strategies with social media users in the cat shelter world, I was able to update TSP’s social media strategies which increased web and foot traffic to their shelter.
The most useful experience was talking with the social media coordinator at another local shelter. Originally, I had thought that the best strategy was frequent posts and updates on the cats at the shelter. However, the main learnings I took from the success of other social media strategies was the importance of encouraging communication and interactions with the site’s stakeholders via social media posts.
Having experienced this feedback, I started to analyze my own habits on social media and the pages that I follow. Whenever I see a post that interests me, I always review the comments and chime in when something catches my eye. I enjoy posts where I can actively communicate with others. This means that it’s not necessarily about the original post, but how the original post encourages conversations on the topic at hand. This data helped me understand why I would skim over one post but stop to read another. Understanding these social media preferences are useful to me as a volunteer at TSP, because I have been able to share the results of this study, update their social media strategies/training, and encourage our social media coordinators to post statuses that leave room for stakeholders to comment on and become involved with. This means that more people are involved on TSP’s social media pages, which has a filter down impact, increasing the people who are involved in our online posts, the more people we can make aware of the shetler, the needs of the shelter, and the needs of feral cats in the Cincinnati area.
Personally, the information learned from this research gives me data to support and analyze my own behaviors in terms of social media habits. Just like the research suggested, I often find myself commenting on pages or posts where I know there will be a response or further communication. I have started to pay attention to why certain posts catch my attention and what may be different about posts which I tend to skim over. This self reflection has also given me the opportunity to apply these newfound tools to TSP’s social media campaign with success.
Research into the Public’s Awareness and Ability to Identify Plants which cause Toxicosis to the Domestic House Cat (Felis catus)
Rounding out my Master’s journey on the topic of public perception, I wanted to design another study using a survey, which would give me an opportunity to show what I have learned about survey data collection from my time in the AIP. After years of working in veterinary medicine and seeing cats come in with potential toxic symptoms from eating poisonous plants, I decided to focus my last research on understanding the public’s awareness around which plants are toxic and not toxic to the domestic house cat, comparing knowledge between veterinary professionals and non-veterinary professionals who own cats. Plants toxic to cats can be found in yards, gardens, window boxes, and various other places outdoors as well as brought into the house by owners as potted plants or bouquets. Bouquets containing lilies are common around birthdays, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day or even Father’s Day. One of the major issues with plant based poisoning in cats is the owner’s ability to identify the source of the toxin (Milewski & Khan, 2006). This is of particular concern, as most research on plant awareness and the public’s ability to identify common plants shows that public awareness is very low (Aswani, Lemahieu, & Sauer, 2018; Bebbington, 2005; Gallois & Reyes-Garcia, 2018).
Since IRB approval was not acquired for this study, specific results will not be discussed here. However, the study was conducted using an online survey tool, and study participants were asked to identify five plants based solely on photographs, as well as ten true/false statements regarding specific plants’ toxicity to cats. Overall, less than 1/4 of survey participants were able to correctly identify plants which were toxic to cats based on photographs or true/false statements. There was a statistical significance between the two groups, with veterinary professionals being able to correctly identify more toxic plants and answer more correct true/false questions than non-veterinary professionals. The results show that there is simply not enough awareness into which plants are toxic to cats and that veterinary professionals need to do more sharing of this topic to clients.
Extrapolating from the data gathered in this research, I created a flier (Figure 3) to use in my volunteer opportunities. Using the flier, other adoption counselors and I go over with clients the topic of plant toxicity and discuss specifics with them, if interested. The flier directs new cat parents to the ASPCA’s APCC and initiates awareness around this topic. In addition, I will be partnering with another Dragonfly student to prepare a "commercial" to broadcast at Grady Veterinary Hospital, a 24 hour full service animal hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The prediction was that my survey was going to show that on average, the general public cannot identify the majority of plants, which was correct. When compared to veterinary professionals, the knowledge around plant toxicity is less in the general public, which was the hypothesis. What did surprise me was the inability for most people to know whether or not a plant is toxic to a cat by the name of the plant. I was hoping that more non-veterinary professional cat owners would be aware of which plants do and do not pose risks to their feline companions. However, I am glad to have had this experience, as now the adoption procedures at TSP are more robust and I am able to share this information through GVH. My work at TSP and connections at GVH give me a great avenue to share this research and impress upon cat parents the importance of recognizing poisonous plants before anyone has to find out the hard way. The first step towards change is knowing your community and what knowledge is out in the world. Now that I understand the gaps in education around this topic, I can use this research to spread the word, encourage cat-friendly plants for cat owners, and hopefully save a few cat lives.
Figure 3. Flier for TSP.
Flier created as a result of this research. This flier is now part of The Scratching Post's adoption packet of paperwork, and is a way to initiate conversations between clients and adoption counselors on the topic of plant toxicity awareness to cats.
Research / Personal Education
Personal understanding of the issues facing feral cats, and caused by feral cats, was instrumental in me understanding the big picture to the feral cat problem. The research in this section was conducted to improve my awareness on ecological impacts of feral cats as well as feline infectious disease seroprevalance across the globe. This section explores two papers written for personal education or research purposes:
- Research conducted to explore and understand the issues caused by populations of feral cats on the environment and surrounding ecosystems, used to heavily support the development of my website listed above
- Comparative meta-analysis of peer reviewed literature comparing the rates of two different feline infectious disease rates across three different biomes
Feral Cat Issues and Effects on Surrounding Ecosystems
A topic I needed to know more about was how feral cat populations impact wildlife and surrounding ecosystems. To increase my personal knowledge, research was conducted to explore the vastly different options of handling the feral cat population, such as by lethal means like poison baiting and shooting, or more humane ways, like Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) or Trap-Vasectomy-Hysterectomy-Return (TVHR) programs, and immunocontraception. Using published articles, this paper discussed recent statistics and studies around the management of the feral cat population. The research focused on TNR/TVHR programs by looking at cost, effectiveness, public opinions, and impacts on wildlife and surrounding ecosystems, in addition to alternatives to TNR/TVHR programs. The goal of this research was to report data surrounding TNR/TVHR programs in hopes of being used to encourage TNR/TVHR programs and funding.
The information discovered in this research was added to my Feral Cats website and was used to bulk up the section of my website in regards to TNR/TVHR programs and how the best method of eradication is determined by the reason for the issue. While none of us want to have to cull feral cats, if there is an immediate threat to local wildlife, lethal means may be the best, albeit sad, solution. However, if the issue is reduction to the ever-growing population without a strong sense of urgency, TNR/TVHR programs alongside of citizen education seem like the most humane and appropriate action.
As with any argument, to be totally informed you have to research all topics. While I hate the idea of culling feral cats from an animal welfare perspective, it is something that I had to research to fully support and understand my Master Plan. The most meaningful aspect of this entire program for me is to take a step back from my cozy, first world house and think about how different other communities and regions have to deal with conservation issues. When I first started this program, I never would have understood why a government would want to poison or kill domestic cats (or endangered species, like lions!). But after research for papers like this, and attendance to Barrows Lecture Series via this program, my eyes have been opened to the concept that not every situation has the same parameters. It’s easy for me to say in The United States, we shouldn’t be poisoning cats, that we should all take the responsibility to spay/neuter and not feed feral cat populations. But it’s not always that easy. If Maslow's hierarchy of needs aren't met for a person or community, their interest in conservation-based programs will be nonexistent. If you live in a community where you have to walk tens of miles for clean water, you have to fight for food for your children, you live in fear of your government or the threat of violence for your beliefs, the likelihood that you have much available energy to help a colony of feral cats is low. Researching topics like the ones discussed in this paper forced me to picture how others live and how the perception of priorities changes based on so many different factors. This was a surprising pool of research to me, as it showed how each colony of feral cats may need to be handled with a different approach, a different method, and may even not be on the list of things to work on, for some communities.
Comparative Meta-Analysis of Feline Leukemia Virus and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus Disease Rates Among Cats in Mediterranean, Tropical, and Temperate Forest Habitats Around the Globe
Missing from my previous research was information on diseases impacting cat colonies. This research served as a way for me to familiarize myself with two diseases, Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), as well as geographically, the areas around the globe where the prevalence of these diseases were greatest.
This paper reported the frequency of these two diseases in three separate biome habitats: Mediterranean forests, tropical forests, and temperate forests. Using information from 16 published articles, information around FeLV and FIV rates of infection in specific locations around the world were analyzed. Results (Figure 4) show that the highest percentage of FeLV or FIV infected cats live in tropical forests (12.48%), and the results are statistically significant (p = <0.001 when tropical is compared to Mediterranean and temperate). While there are only theories on why, reasons for this could be that the lower income locations in this study were also in the tropical biome. There is a higher percentage of feral cats and cat colonies in tropical forests, and there is less emphasis on animal welfare and animal control programs in these countries.
The information in this report is important because it encourages people to keep cats indoors or at least smaller outdoor colonies to reduce the risk of infectious disease. There is little research comparing biomes and habitats across the world for cats, and this paper helps strengthen this research. Since my whole Master Plan is around increasing awareness of the feral cat problem, by conducting this research, I now know a lot more about infectious disease rates that impact cats.
Reflecting back on this research, I learned a lot about how little clinics in Cincinnati record data on feral cats. My original plan for this project was to call local shelters and clinics to see if male or female feral cats had the greater prevalence of infectious disease. However, after calls to 21 different organizations and clinics, I realized that most places do not keep detailed records on feral cats. Most of the funding and resources for feral cat programs are limited and work is done by volunteers limited on time. Most facilities do not have the option to slow down and take the solid data which I was looking for. So, while it makes sense, I was surprised that there was a lack of data in regards to infectious disease rates in strictly feral cats. Once I changed the scope of my paper to focus on biomes across the world, I was also surprised at the lack of information in other biomes, since cats occupy every biome except tundra and aquatic habitats. It is interesting to me that there is little information out there about cats and cat diseases in the desert, grasslands, and savannahs. The overwhelming majority of data I found was from temperate forest habitats. I was also thinking that FIV would not be as much of an issue as I now know it is, since FIV is much more difficult to contract that FeLV.
This paper, with some adjustments, was submitted to Research in Veterinary Science and is currently under review. The paper was updated to compare FIV and FeLV rates of infection across the globe and how infection rates compare to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at purchasing power parity per capita (PPP). The overall finding from this paper was that human participation in cat sterilization programs increased as the financial resources of that region increased. This paper has been sent back from review with suggestions for revisions along with the follow comment, “This is an interesting and original paper, of interdisciplinary interest, that could potentially provide results that have clear implications for the development of control measures of feline retrovirus FIV and FeLV, to improve the animal health.” I will continue to work with the publisher to make the necessary adjustments to ensure this paper is published and shared.
Poster from research, presented at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden on December 2nd, 2017.
Every artifact in my portfolio contains learnings which I have been able apply towards my work on the feral cat epidemic. I have been able to improve TSP’s social media strategies, add information into the adoption packets around plant toxicity, environmental litters, and share a wealth of knowledge on this topic through my website. I have been able to compare human personality traits to pet preferences, suggesting an easy way to potentially increase awareness around the right pet for the right person. I have been able to share my feral cat website across over 1,600 individuals and counting, including people in the United States, Europe, India, Canada, and Asia. I am in the process of partnering with a local veterinary hospital to create a commercial to show clients on the topic of plant toxicities to companion animals.
Personally, my time in this program has introduced and encouraged me to incorporate conservation-based adjustments in my personal life, such as changing all of my cats to a wheat based litter versus clay litter. I have been able to apply learnings to the social media pages I manage, encouraging communication and interactions with the site’s stakeholders via social media posts. This program has also opened my eyes to be able to view a problem with a wider understanding of global issues. Back in 2016, I would have told you that all hunters were evil, anyone who kills a lion, regardless of their reason was a bad person, and that there’s just no excuse for not living an environmentally and conservation focused life. But this program has forced me to realize that if you are struggling to provide for your family, your priorities are likely not on how your actions impact the environment. If your father or child had been injured or worse, killed by an endangered animal, which you live in fear of due to lack of adequate housing or security in your community, you have less interest in protecting that very animal. This is direct reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1943). If the basic necessities in life aren’t met, that individual is not going to have the motivation to live a conservation-based life. We all need to encourage behaviors which increase human psychological, safety, and belonging requirements. For it is not until we provide a world where everyone is safe, will we be able to make wide sweeping conservation-based improvements.
It was easy for me to assume that there’s never a reason why anyone would want to cull a population of feral cats before I started this program. However, researching the topics I have over the past 2.5 years has really forced me to look at all the problems and brainstorm solutions not just from a first world state of mind, but from the perception of the people who live in all regions impacted. Each colony of feral cats needs to be dealt with in a unique way, as each colony of feral cats is surrounded by a different financial situation, impact to the environment, and priorities of surrounding humans. Most of the funding and resources for the feral problem are limited, and so we have to encourage and support options that sometimes are not ideal. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to dig into a topic I have always been passionate about, and devote my time in the AIP towards improving the welfare and management of feral cats. My work with the feral cat community has just started, and I am excited to use the tools and inquiry-based thought process I’ve developed during my time in the AIP to make an everlasting impact on the community I have chosen to serve.
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