No evidence of long-term welfare problems with electronic containment of cats

September 9, 2016 by Elizabeth Allen, University of Lincoln
No evidence of long-term welfare problems with electronic containment of cats
Credit: University of Lincoln

A study by animal welfare specialists has provided new evidence that using electronic containment systems to restrict where pet cats venture does not result in long-term wellbeing problems.

The use of hand-held shock collars on dogs has previously led to concerns over the welfare of animals trained using so-called 'e-collars'. However, other forms of electronic training devices for pets have received relatively little attention from researchers. These include invisible or virtual fences which deliver a static electric pulse to deter animals from crossing a boundary, such as a garden perimeter.

A new study into these systems by animal welfare researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, is the first of its kind. The researchers found no evidence of long-term welfare problems in living with these fences, compared to control cats able to roam freely in and out of their owners' gardens.

Professor Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, explained: "While some will argue that electronic containment systems can never be justified for pets, others highlight that, in the UK alone, hundreds of thousands of cats are killed and injured on roads each year and these devices can prevent these often fatal injuries and the emotional cost to the cats and their owners. In contrast, housing cats solely indoors to remove such risks is associated with increased prevalence of a range of health problems including obesity, Feline Urologic Syndrome and dental disease. Long-term exposure to common flame retardants widely used in homes may also have toxic side effects for cats."

Unlike owner-operated hand-held electronic training devices, invisible fences depend purely on the cat's behaviour for any correction and not human judgement. Modern devices train the cats to associate a warning beep with the location of the invisible fence. As a consequence animals may be able to quickly and efficiently learn appropriate avoidance behaviours, without persistent anxiety or fear of a shock.

The scientists undertook a range of behaviour tests designed to assess the mood and anxiety of cats and found that, if anything, those contained with electronic boundary systems appeared more confident when it came to new experiences.

The research, which is published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, was carried out by some of the same scientists whose previous work highlighted welfare concerns relating to the hand-held devices used with dogs.

Dr Naïma Kasbaoui led the research, which was funded by the charity Feline Friends. She said: "This work is an important first step in studying these electronic containment systems. All of the cats involved in our research were well cared for and those that were contained with the electronic fencing had at least 100 square metres of external space available.

"Further work is now needed to explore the effects on cats kept in smaller enclosures, but our results should help reassure many owners looking to keep their cats safe from roads using these containment systems."

Dr Jonathan Cooper, Principal Lecturer in the University of Lincoln's School of Life Sciences, added: "Electronic training of animals can be controversial and we know that it can lead to poor welfare when used without a good understanding of pet wellbeing and training. However this new study suggests that with invisible electronic fences, at least, cats can be effectively contained without compromising their quality of life."

Explore further: Study to examine welfare aspects of cat containment

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5 comments

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tear88
not rated yet Sep 09, 2016
Could be better than a cat-proof fence. Now if I can just catch the feral cat who hangs around, to put a collar on it....
LizSu
not rated yet Sep 10, 2016
Invisible fences do not keep out predators of house cats, such as aggressive dogs, coyotes, etc. These fences, therefore, do play a role in the welfare of house cats.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Sep 10, 2016
"The use of hand-held shock collars on dogs has previously led to concerns over the welfare of animals trained using so-called 'e-collars'."

-I don't understand. A dog that harasses a skunk or a porcupine gets a painful lesson. We dont consider this inhumane. This is what pain is for.

But getting shocked is somehow a different kind of pain which affects a dog psychologically I guess. Is this because it has seen films of electric chairs and cattle prods at Abu graib?

Actually I do understand. It's a human thing. A stupid human pet trick.
Nik_2213
not rated yet Sep 11, 2016
Is the collar a 'safe' design ? A neighbour's cat found a convenient hedge for readily removing her pretty collar with its 'If Found' info. IIRC, her record was two in a week...
Eikka
not rated yet Sep 12, 2016
But getting shocked is somehow a different kind of pain which affects a dog psychologically I guess. Is this because it has seen films of electric chairs and cattle prods at Abu graib?


If you were shocked by something beyond your comprehension, just out of the blue for walking across an invisible line in the air, wouldn't you get a bit anxious and paranoid?

The point is that a skunk is an external thing that the animal can avoid, whereas the shock collar isn't. If the animal can't percieve or understand the reason why it is being shocked, it can't anticipate and avoid it. For example, if the dog runs across the yard well beyond the reach of the invisible fence transmitter, and starts to get shocked, how does it know what to do to make it stop?

There isn't any clear indication of a rule or a boundary that has been broken - there's just the punishment for doing something wrong.

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