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W21-015: Effects of early life experiences on later problematic behaviors in rescued, fostered, shelter kittens

Behavior problems in cats decrease adoptions and increase returns and euthanasia in shelter cats. In owned cats, early separation from families (8 weeks and less) has been shown to increase the risk of aggression to humans and excessive grooming behavior. Delayed separation has been shown to have a protective effect. There are no such data for homeless, rescue kittens, but these kittens should benefit from prolonged (12 week) foster care to overcome the effects of physiological and emotional stress that their mothers experienced. The effects of maternal and post-natal stress can be estimated by telomere length and hair cortisol. We expect that impairment and deprivation will also affect how kittens perform on a series of behavioral tests to assess how active, curious and outgoing they are, and, as with owned cats, increase their risk of behavioral problems later in life. Because the PEI HS has an outreach program to retrieve all homeless, rescue kittens, we have the unique opportunity to collaborate with them to test the effects of various rehoming times on later behavior problems and measures of stress.

The goals of the proposed project are two-fold:

1. To evaluate the effects of age of adoption on risk of owner-reported problematic behaviors in the large (500 per year), natural population of Prince Edward Island (PEI) homeless, rescue kittens (HRK) as they mature.

2. To evaluate relationships between physiological markers of epigenetic and post-natal stress (as an estimator of putative maternal and early environmental stress) and performance in standardized activity, exploration and social responsiveness tests (temperament/personality) on the later development of behavioral problems, with respect to age of adoption.

Grant ID: W21-015

Status: Active

Year Funded: 2021

Amount awarded: $28,975

Investigator: Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, Ph.D., DACVB; Kathryn Proudfoot, MSc, Ph.D.; Chelsea K. Martin, DVM, Ph.D., DACVP; William J. Montelpare, Ph.D.; University of Prince Edward Island