Spotlight on Research: Courtney Graham
Courtney Graham is a PhD candidate working with kittens in the Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare Lab at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. She is currently investigating the effects of socialization and early management strategies for mitigating the development of fear-based behaviors in young kittens. We interviewed her as part of our ongoing series highlighting early career researchers in companion animal behavior and related fields.
How did you first get interested in kitten behavior, and how did that end up as an academic interest?
I’ve always loved kittens and cats and had many growing up. I had always wanted to work with animals in some capacity and had previously thought vet school was the only option. I didn’t find the field of animal welfare and behaviour science until attending the University of British Columbia (UBC) as a post-graduate student where I discovered the Animal Welfare Program and knew I wanted to learn more. For my MSc at UBC, I was given the opportunity to study the welfare and behaviour of laboratory zebrafish. While attending UBC near the end of MSc, the Animal Welfare Program brought in a guest speaker (Dr. Lauren Dawson) from the Ontario Veterinary College, and once I learned of the companion animal work being done there, I contacted her advisor, Dr. Lee Niel, with my interest in joining her research team, submitted my application which was successful, and moved to Ontario to start my PhD a few months later.
Do you keep cats at home? If so, has anything you’ve learned from your research changed your relationship with them?
Yes, I have two cats at home, Mango (9 years) and Sophie (3 years—she was an adoptable foster kitten who participated in an early project in my PhD). My knowledge of cat behaviour has grown tremendously since starting my PhD research and has helped me better understand the subtleties of their behaviour. Mango was not well socialized as a kitten, so my research has helped me understand where some of his fearful personality has come from. Studying specific behaviours of kittens has helped me recognize these behaviours in my own cats and I think has helped improve their welfare.
Tell me about your latest study
I’ve just completed an online survey that asked both quantitative (selected answer) and qualitative (open answer) questions from kitten foster parents about their perceptions and experiences while fostering kittens. The mixed methods approach allowed us to collect a lot of data about the types of socialization experiences and practices that are commonly provided to young kittens, and behaviours and characteristics thought to be important for successful and long-term adoptions. We also asked about challenges and barriers that foster parents face that may hinder their ability to provide appropriate socialization for their kittens, as well as changes to practices that may have occurred due to the pandemic. Foster parents hold such an important role in the early development of young kittens, yet little is known about their first-hand experiences. We received responses from around the world and preliminary results show some risk factors for providing negative socialization techniques, resources that fosters need, and challenges fosters face for providing optimal socialization, including impacts of the pandemic. I’m looking forward to getting more into the analyses!
What are some particularly challenging or unexpected things about working with young kittens?
Young kittens are the best research subjects but can also be unpredictable, so patience has been key. But getting to work with kittens is a dream come true! When I was collecting data within foster parents’ homes (before the pandemic), it didn’t matter if the kittens had the zoomies, or wouldn’t cooperate, or were a bit of a handful, as they were adorable, and it was always such a wonderful experience. The foster parent and shelter connections I’ve made over the course of my research has also been very positive and I can see the kittens are in great hands. Since the pandemic, I have not been able to work with kittens in person, so the challenge lately has been trying to continue behaviour work remotely.
What would you like people who work with kittens and cats in shelters to take away from your research?
I hope my research provides insights into identifying when kittens might be in a fearful state to be able to mitigate a potentially negative situation, which socialization practices promote the best behavioural development for kittens, and ultimately providing a better understanding of ways to improve kitten welfare. The early experiences of kittens (and all animals) are crucial for lifelong behavioural development and welfare and starting kittens with the right environment and experiences will help set them up to have lasting relationships with their caretakers and keep cats in their adoptive homes.
What would you wish cat owners understood better about kittens, especially about their socialization needs and their behavior when stressed?
The sensitive period for socialization in kittens is typically from 2 to 9 weeks of age (often before kittens are adopted), so exposing kittens to as many things, environments, people, and animals as possible during this time will help reduce their reactivity to these exposures later in life. For foster parents or those caring for very young kittens during this period, it is especially important to start as early in their socialization period as possible for providing these various exposures, such as lots of gentle handling, exposure to different sounds, environments, and surfaces, and even mimicking a vet visit, including carrier training and handling for different procedures. For caretakers with older kittens, socialization might take a bit longer, but kittens and cats are adaptable and can continue learning throughout their lives.
As for their behaviour, I think learning the subtleties of the behaviours kittens show when they’re fearful (e.g., showing avoidance, tucking their tail, puffing up their fur, putting their ears back) will help caretakers understand if their kittens are in a negative state and if they can be removed from the situation, which can help stop the progression of fear to aggression and ultimately will improve their kittens’ welfare. Early socialization experiences may also have to be adapted depending on a kitten’s behaviour as we don’t want to overstimulate young kittens to the point of flooding. I have a couple of papers coming out soon discussing which behaviours kittens show when fearful, how well the general public can identify these behaviours, and foster parent perspectives of kitten behaviour and socialization! We also have a lab Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/OVC-Companion-Animal-Behaviour-and-Welfare-Lab-942402815800631) where we post about our own studies and other companion animal behaviour and welfare research. As well, although just getting started, we have a lab website (https://niel-lab.uoguelph.ca/) with some infographic resources about identifying kitten behaviour and a desensitization and counterconditioning training program for conducting nail trims on young kittens. We’ll be adding more resources soon!
If funding and time were no barrier, what would you like to work on?
An original goal of my PhD research was to conduct a longitudinal study over kittens’ first year of life (or beyond) to investigate how fear behaviours develop and progress over time, but the pandemic unfortunately disrupted this research trajectory, so this is something I hope to do in the future. I think there is still a lot to discover about the effects of early experiences on kitten behaviour and what factors most influence the development of fearful behaviour. I would love to continue working with young kittens and the people that care for them in early life in whatever capacity I can!