Pet cat sitting outdoors

Lock up your cat to boost environmental credibility, study suggests

Image credit: Dreamstime

According to a study by researchers at Cornell University, New York, members of a community tend to view their neighbours who install solar panels and avoid using pesticides as particularly environmentally friendly.

However, allowing a pet cat to roam around outdoors can damage sustainability cred, even if the owner is careful to continue all the same sustainable practices as indoor cat owners.

“We thought this was a very interesting opportunity to study group norm violations,” said Hwanseok Song, a PhD student at Cornell University and the study’s lead author.

“What happens within this community when they see one of their members violate an important group norm? Do people notice cues that a member within their community is letting their cat outdoors? Do these people who notice those cues actually use that information to make judgements on that group-norm violator?”

In order to explore how environmental efforts were perceived by others in the community, the researchers used Habitat Network: a social networking and citizen science app which encourages its users to draw and share virtual maps of their homes, and show off their sustainability and conservation efforts.

The researchers drew two almost identical maps of sustainable houses; each had a small lawn, solar panels and did not use pesticides and other chemicals in their gardens. The one difference was the position of a pet cat in the homes, with one home having an outdoor cat and the other having a cat living indoors.

Users of Habitat Network were requested to rate the two properties. Song and his colleagues found that participants who did not own cats considered the outdoor cat owner to be less interested in sustainability, and rated them as considerably less likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviours.

“Everything else in this map is pretty much signalling that this is a person already quite committed to sustainability causes. It usually takes a strong environmental commitment to install a solar panel,” said Song. “These findings say a lot about how we make judgements of others who are either violating or complying with these sometimes-parochial norms.”

Outdoor cats could be controversial among some conservationists – and particularly by bird enthusiasts – as they each pose a small danger to wildlife, including birds and rodents.

According to the researchers, the findings have “strong implications” for citizen science projects aiming to promote sustainability; subtle biases and misperceptions could weaken efforts on environmental projects.

“This study is a reminder of how easy it can be to jump to conclusions about other people’s behaviours on the basis of very little information,” said Professor Poppy McLeod of Cornell University, who co-authored the study.

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