Penn veterinarians develop new tool to unlock the mysteries of cat behavior

As a species, domestic cats are often considered aloof, mysterious, and self-reliant. But on an individual level, cats come in all stripes: friendly, aggressive, fearful, needy, playful, and more.

A new tool developed by researchers at the School of Veterinary Medicine is designed to allow scientists to better understand the behavior and temperament of pet cats by tapping into the expertise of those who know them best: their owners.

The Feline Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire, or Fe-BARQ, is a 100-question survey available to pet owners, trainers, rescue organizations, breeders, and veterinarians. It was developed by James Serpell, director of Penn Vet’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, in collaboration with experts on cat behavior.

The Fe-BARQ builds on the success of its canine equivalent, the C-BARQ, which Serpell originally developed in 2003 for his own research. Since then, its use has taken off. The questionnaire been used in more than 60 scientific studies, and more than 40,000 pet dogs are in the database, plus a similar number of working dogs.

Serpell and colleagues hope for similar success with the Fe-BARQ. To develop the questionnaire, they scoured the scientific literature and had experts on cat behavior review an early draft. It quickly became clear that analyzing cat behavior can be more complex than examining dog behavior.

“With dogs, it’s very clear what kind of behaviors are positive and what behaviors are negative,” he says. “No one likes excessive barking, for example. With cats, it’s not as clear. I suspect some owners are happy with a cat that doesn’t climb the furniture, while other people would be delighted to have a very active, playful cat.”

Already, Serpell and colleagues have identified trends in cat behavior based on initial data from the Fe-BARQ. A paper by the group published earlier this spring in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior showed a strong association between breed and behaviors such as aggression toward other cats or separation-related problems.

The Fe-BARQ is available online and takes about 10-15 minutes to fill out. Respondents receive a report at the end with assessments of a cat’s scores compared to the breed average in categories such as activity/playfulness, sociability with people, sociability with cats, aggression to owners or strangers, vocalization, and attention-seeking behavior.

Moving forward, Serpell is partnering with Carlo Siracusa of Penn Vet’s Behavior Medicine service to eventually connect the C-BARQ and Fe-BARQ to a telemedicine portal through which owners could choose to receive assistance in improving their pets’ problem behaviors, with an aim of a happier home life for both pets and their owners.

“The goal of all of this research is really to improve the welfare of dogs and cats,” Serpell says.

Cat Behavior