Reviewed here: Effects of Long-Term Exposure to an Electronic Containment System on the Behaviour and Welfare of Domestic Cats.
Naïma Kasbaoui, Jonathan Cooper, Daniel S. Mills, Oliver Burman. Published: September 7, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0162073
“An electronic boundary fence with clear pre-warning cues does not impair the long term quality of life of cats."
This is a definitive statement by any measure, but coming at the end of a peer-reviewed study conducted at a major research university in the UK, it’s downright flooring.
As any breeder or show-culture aficionado in the U.S. will tell you, the regulatory environment in the UK is steep, now boasting unconditional bans against ear cropping, tail docking and declawing in its war against unnecessary stress, pain and mutilation for pets. Not surprisingly, that strong stance on animal rights feeds a broader culture of (arguably healthy) skepticism in the UK around human impositions on companion animals more generally. And in the last twenty or thirty years, as pioneering pet containment technologies like Invisible Fence® Brand’s Boundary Plus® Pet Fence
have spread from U.S. households to the rest of the world, the UK has been a stronghold of critical scrutiny and professional accountability.
Enter Naïma Kasbaoui, Jonathan Cooper, Daniel S. Mills and Oliver Burman, affiliates of the Animal Behaviour, Cognition and Welfare Research Group in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, England, and authors of a new, groundbreaking study - “Effects of Long-Term Exposure to an Electronic Containment System on the Behaviour and Welfare of Domestic Cats.”
Thanks in part to a generous donation from Feline Friends in England, this group has managed to execute a pet-focused, humanitarian study with the noble goal of determining “if long-term exposure to an electronic containment system was associated with reduced cat welfare.” If that’s not impressive to you, let’s just say that a vast majority of e-fence studies getting funded today are overwhelmingly cattle-and-sheep affairs sidestepping the high standards of animal welfare science for questions of “efficacy and the consequences for productivity.” If you’re a cat lover about to put a pulse-emitting collar on your best friend, Kasbaoui et al. are exactly the kind of people you want screening your hardware.
E-Fences: Too Good to Be True?
As the study’s introduction explains, collar-based electronic containment for cats has arisen as a middle way between the hardline anti-outdoor policies of many cat specialists and the old-fashioned cat-as-family-bird-catcher model. Dr. Christine Wilford, a veterinarian and cat specialist in the Pacific Northwest, put it this way: “There’s been professional recognition for many years that some cats simply enjoy a better quality of life when they have outdoor access. I’ve had clients who were even considering rehoming their cats because of damage inside their homes from frustrated, indoor-only cats.”
So, the motivation for cat-owning households to adopt these technologies is strong; the fences do work, after all - a fact that’s been well-established in the livestock literature
. But is it safe? What does it do to a cat to be collared with a tone-and-static-emitting correctional device for twelve months or more?
The Fear: Chronic Stress
If the cats on a pet fence have been consistently under stress for the past 12 months due to frustrated instincts or fear of shock, the researchers hypothesize, these cats will likely show signs of neophobia and “pessimistic judgment”
- indications of an anti-social turn, an unhealthy psychological withdrawal from an unfriendly world: “We hypothesised that reduced interaction with an unfamiliar person, reduced exploration and interaction with a novel object, heightened sensitivity to sudden noise, and a ‘pessimistic’ judgement would indicate compromised welfare.” This constellation of concerns comes down to a key concept: chronic stress - a condition manifesting only over time and ultimately effecting everything from the cats’ natural responses to their environment to their general mood and cognitive functioning.
And as we can’t ask a cat to rate their mood on a scale of one to ten, animal welfare scientists have developed a number of ingenius tests and methodologies, from which our researchers have distilled four feline-fitted behavioral tests: the unfamiliar person test, the novel object test, the sudden noise test and the cognitive judgment bias test. The goal? to catch the cat’s candid response to new stimuli in an otherwise familiar, comfortable home environment.
Trial by Clowder
Comparing a group of 23 domestic outside cats (called AF for Already on a Fence group) contained for a year on a collar-based electronic system with a group of 23 free-ranging cats (called C for Control group), the four trials yielded some surprising results for skeptics of the Invisible Way:
Better than “Not Bad”
- The unfamiliar person test. Cats in a negative affective state are going to be more cautious around strangers than cats in a positive state. Thus, the authors hypothesize, “reduced interaction with an unfamiliar person . . . . would indicate compromised welfare.” Would the cats exposed to electronic fencing be more cautious around, even threatened by, a friendly stranger in the room compared to their free-roaming cousins? No. If anything, it was the other way around. As each cat proceeded through the four two-minute phases of the test, variances did indeed emerge between the AF and C cats. In phase one, lip-smacking - a sign of anxiety - turned up significantly more in the videos of the free roamers, not the contained cats. And during phases two and four, when the stranger was instructed to be most solicitous and therefore most potentially threatening to a stressed cat, it was the containment group that proved most gregarious, tallying up enthogram marks for “looking at and exploring the stranger” and “interaction with stranger.”
Fig 1. Mean ± standard error for loading on factor one “looking at and exploring the stranger” for phase two, AF (Already have a Fence) group and C (Control) group. SOURCE: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0162073.g003
- Novel object test. The “Already have a Fence” cats weren’t spooked by weird objects, either. For the novel object test, each of our cats was put in the same room with something out of the movie Jumanji - a little mirror with a marble elephant or resin giraffe glued to it. Would the e-collar cats indicate “compromised welfare” through “reduced exploration and interaction with a novel object,” as predicted? Again, no. In fact, neither cat group exhibited much fear of the talisman, willing at least to share space with it, but the computer collar clowder proved more expeditious: “There was a significant difference between the groups for factor one ‘looking at and exploring object’ . . . with AF cats exploring the object more than C cats.”
- Sudden noise test. Because e-fences like the one used in this study are commonly equipped with warning tones, the sudden noise test was an important threshold for the AF cats. A major 2012 study cited by the University of Lincoln group suggested that exposure to static correction could result in a “tendency to generalise their response to the conditioned stimulus.” Would a year or more on an electronic fence system make cats paranoid of sudden sounds? Computer speakers were set up near the cats’ normal feeding bowl, and, a couple seconds after digging into their favorite dish, the cats were exposed to the harsh sound of a metallic door opening. This inspired “no significant difference between groups . . . indicating that cats exposed to a beep in association with a potentially aversive electric stimulus (AF cats) were no more sensitive to a sudden or high pitched noise than control cats.” There is not much explanation in the study itself as to why the containment cats would appear so unperturbed, but Invisible Fence Brand National Pet Trainer Manager shared an interesting perspective: “I’m not surprised that cats didn’t confuse the tone. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my 25 years of working with cats on Invisible Fence Brand systems, it’s that cats are great with cues - even better than dogs. A soup can being opened and a can of cat food being opened are soundworlds apart to your cat.”
- Cognitive bias test. The fourth and final behavioral test was different than the others, seeking “to specifically assess the cats’ affective predisposition rather than their response to specific stimuli.” Are the AF cats walking around with a chip on their shoulders that causes them to mope and make “pessimistic” decisions? The cats were lead into a small wire mesh arena with food bowls and systematically trained to distinguish between a far left “rewarded location” - where their approach to the bowl would be rewarded with a small meal - and a far right “unrewarded location” where they could see and smell the food, but have no way to dig in. During the test itself they would have to rely on their training to decide if it was worth their while to approach bowls in “ambiguous locations” near right, near left and in the middle. This is clever stuff with interesting experimental precedents, but unfortunately it was all too much for the time allotted, and few of the cats (14 out of 46) completed the whole trial. The scanty results, however, did suggest conformity with the overall trend: “No significant differences were found between the two groups. . . . No difference in affective state.”
Fig 2. Judgment bias test arena and example of locations of the food bowl.
Given the comparative nature of these trials - in which the data analyzed was a matter of measurable variance between groups - it’s important to note that the cumulative result did more than just disprove an allegation against virtual fences. In the concluding analysis, the researchers go so far as to state a clear benefit of electronic containment for cats that need time outside: “Overall, the behavioural tests indicate that the cats who have experienced extended confinement using an invisible electronic containment system are generally less neophobic than cats not contained in this way and potentially free to roam outside of the property boundaries. This difference might be the result of greater exposure to uncontrolled aversive stimuli for the control cats, such as unfriendly neighbours, negative social interactions or traffic off-site or possibly a population selection bias, if the AF cats’ early experiences made them less neophobic.”
Dr. Wilford echoed this bolder interpretation: “This study confirms what I’ve experienced as a veterinarian: electronic containment provides a safe, humane option for domestic cats that need time outside. Over fifteen years, many of my clients have been able to actually enrich their cats’ lives when I recommended Invisible Fence Brand containment. This study from the UK, which is known for higher animal welfare standards than the U.S., achieved positive results on a mid-grade fence with minimal professional training. I believe the observations would be as good or better with the individualized training and ‘digital report card’ monitoring that Invisible Fence Brand Solutions provide.”