Aggression between Cats
Two cats engage in a spat while waiting to be fed.

In spite of our best efforts, things can go wrong and our cats confront each other aggressively. You may have adopted a new cat and he escapes the room you are keeping him in while introducing him to your resident cats. Something may startle the cats, say an outdoor cat comes to the window and one cat attacks a housemate in a bout of redirected aggression. Separation is the immediate solution to these unplanned events.

Indoor Cat Fights vs outdoors


There is nothing as dramatic as a cat fight. Two cats face off, fur standing on end, yowling and spitting. Often, one cat may slowly move away, all the time presenting his side to the other cat (to look larger); his back may be arched. Depending on the motive for the standoff, the remaining cat may just stand his ground and allow the other to leave or he may pounce, and the two cats grapple each other, biting, clawing, kicking, and the “cat ball” rolls away until it stops and both cats take a breather.

Unlike cat fights outdoors, the indoor cat fight can be more aggressive and more likely that either a person or a cat gets injured as things are in such close quarters. There may not be the ritual posturing and howling of a territorial cat fight outdoors. There may not be the opportunity for one of the cats to get away and there is not the extinction in fighting that can happen once one cat leaves the other’s territory.

How do we “break up” the indoor cat fight?


  1. Move calmly and deliberately – avoid fast or jerky movements
  2. Close doors to the area the fight is happening.
  3. Distract the cats momentarily so that you can block them from seeing each other.
  4. Herd the cats away from each other.
  5. Lure the cats into separate areas (rooms) – put a door between them!
  6. When all is calm, evaluate cats and people for injury. Seek medical attention if necessary.

Resist the temptation to scruff both cats and pull them away from each other. You will most likely get scratched, and, worse, get bit. Not only may you require medical treatment, your bond with your cat or cats will suffer.

Scruffing does not calm an adult cat and can actually injure him. Many people have been bit while scruffing a cat – the kitten reflex is long gone.

breaking up the indoor cat fight


  • cardboard barrier to separate cats
    A broom can be handy to gently separate fighting cats. It you anticipate aggressive encounters, attach some cardboard to the broom.

    Distractions: Make a loud noise – shout, clap your hands – to get the cats’ attention. If a bag of cat treats is at hand, shake it. Try scattering treats on the off-chance it may distract them.

  • Block visual contact: Try to slide some sort of barrier between the combatants. This may be a broom, piece of cardboard, or a sofa cushion.
  • Herding/Luring: Once out of sight of each other, try to direct them away from each other by tossing treats in opposite directions. If food is unsuccessful, “herd” one cat (preferably the more aggressive cat) with your barrier gently away from the other toward a place where you can separate the cats by a closed door.

A towel or blanket can be used as a barrier, albeit a flimsy one. If you can keep some tension on the edges and target the aggressive cat, this may be enough time for the other cat to get away, for example, and climb a cat tree.  You can also try and cover the aggressive cat with the towel. Be aware that fighting cats are tense and coiled like springs – they move extremely fast and may just outrun your well-aimed towel.

Be careful not to succumb to the emotion of the moment – hitting either cat with a broom, cardboard, or cushion will not be effective.

if you have help


DO ask your “helpers” to clap their hands together or rattle pots and pans. Be ready to slide your barrier in to block visual contact as soon as the cats are momentarily distracted.

DO have your “helpers” open the door to a room where you can herd one of the cats to. If there are additional materials for barriers (cardboard, broom, sofa pillows), have them herd one cat into a room while you work with the other or vice versa.

Other tools in the indoor cat fight


Spray bottles with water – these can distract some cats but be warned there are cats that will keep going even if you soak them down. The spray also means you will need to get close to the cats and may be a casualty of redirected aggression.

Noise makers – Cans with pennies can be effective to startle the cats. Avoid the use of air horns – in close quarters, these will be really loud. You don’t want the cats to associate a traumatic event with each other.

Rattling the food container elicits a positive emotion – if you scatter treats, some cats may be distracted enough to chase and eat treats. Then you can lure them with treats into separate areas.

be proactive!


Materials to separate fighiting cats
A basket holds a towel, jar of treats, and a spray bottle of water. There is a cardboard barrier behind the basket.

If you are introducing cats or trying to correct redirected aggression due to, say, outdoor cats, have some “emergency” stations set up in areas close to where aggressive encounters may occur. Stock each ER station with:

  • A piece of sturdy cardboard  – you can make a “paddle” by attaching it to a pole. This will keep you out of the line of fire as you try to herd a cat.
  • A thick, large towel
  • A jar of treats and a can of pennies
  • A spray bottle of water

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T is for think about where you are touching the cat.

“Touch not the cat bot a glove” : so goes the motto of the Macpherson clan in Scotland. “Bot” means without; the cat referred to is the Scottish Wildcat. The motto warns that you must be careful handling a wildcat when his claws are not sheathed or “gloved”.

The Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) still lives in Scotland today, a wild, reclusive cat whose numbers are dwindling.

After 10,000 years of living with humans, our domestic cats may have markers of domestication in their genome but they still share a lot with their wild ancestors and cousins. They still have sharp claws and teeth and need to be handled respectfully.

Dr. Lauren Finka, working with colleagues at the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, came up with a simple set of Human-Cat Interaction Guidelines.  These guidelines aim to make cats more  comfortable when they are interacting with us.

These practical guidelines for interacting with cats follow the acronym CAT (easy to remember). Here they are!

 

is for choice and control. Cats are not only predators, they are also prey for larger animals such as coyotes. To survive, they need to be in control of their environment.

Give your cat choice and control –
Allow your cat to CHOOSE whether or not to interact with you.

  • If you can, get on the cat’s level, offer your hand, and allow him to approach you.
  • If the cat wants to be touched, she will rub against your hand. If she doesn’t lean into your hand, don’t pet her.
  • Allow the cat to move away from you if he chooses; don’t follow him if he leaves.
  • Allow the cat to control how much you stroke her. When stroking her, pause every 3–5 sec to see if she wants to continue – does she rub against you to ask for more? If not, let her take a break.

is for attention. Pay attention to what your cat is trying to tell you – watch her body language.

 

 

These signals indicate that your cat is done interacting with you.

 

  • Gus turns to face me and pulls back on his paw during a nail trim – he needs a break!

    She turns her head or moves away from you.

  • His ears become flattened or rotate backwards.
  • She shakes her head.
  • The fur on his back “ripples”.
  • She licks her nose.
  • He becomes still, and stops purring or rubbing against you.
  • She sharply turns her head to face you or your hand.
  • He suddenly starts grooming himself but only for a few seconds at a time.
  • Her tail starts switching back and forth rapidly; usually the tail is horizontal or on the ground.

 

is for think about where you are touching the cat.

  • A friendly cat prefers to be touched at the base of his ears, around his cheeks, and under his chin.
  • AVOID the base of her tail and tummy.
  • If you touch the cat’s back, flank, legs, or tail–watch his body language (see above) to see if he is comfortable with this. Follow the CAT guidelines when interacting with cats for a safer, more enjoyable encounter!

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About a week ago, we had invited family members to the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Appetizers had been set out to snack on prior to the main meal. There was a cheese and cracker plate, with an open box of crackers on it, where folks could serve themselves, taking a cracker and a slice of cheese.

As we were eating dinner, I happened to look over to the counter with the cheese plate. Gus had gotten up on the counter, and was helping himself to a cracker. He very carefully selected a single cracker with his mouth without disturbing the other crackers, the plate or the box. He then carefully backed away to nibble on his prize.

What struck me was that he only took one cracker, he did not paw at the box or knock it on the floor. Had he been watching us? Can cats learn from us?

Trial and Error Learning


A cat presented with a treat ball containing treats for the first time will examine and smell the ball thoroughly, then perhaps nudge it with her nose while continuing to smell the ball. If some treats come out, the cat may then try nudging the ball again or try pawing at it. With each trial, the cat will refine her method of obtaining treats.

Social Learning – Can cats learn from us?


Cats can also learn by watching other cats do things – kittens watch their mother attentively as she manipulates prey and chooses things to eat. Their later success as hunters and the food preferences they develop reflects this instruction.

For the cat, other species are worth watching too – for example, humans, dogs and raccoons may give some invaluable lessons in manipulating doors to reach food or desirable places.

A cat will learn to use a microchip feeder or food puzzle faster if a patient owner sits by with treats and demonstrates the feeder or puzzle operation, speeding up the trial and error process.

“Do As I Do”


“Do As I Do” is a fairly new training method for dogs developed by Claudia Fugazza at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. In the “Do As I Do” method, an owner will demonstrate a behavior to her dog and then ask him to repeat it.

Can a cat “Do As I Do”?


In 2019, Dr. Fugazza decided to test this kind social learning in a cat. Her subject was an 11-year-old female cat, called Ebisu. Ebisu lived with her owner, Fumi Higaki, in Ichinomia, Japan. Fumi Higaki is a professional dog trainer, experienced in the “Do As I Do” method for training dogs.

Training Ebisu was a two-step process:

  1. First, Ebisu learned that the “Do It!” command meant that she should copy what her owner had done. The owner used three behaviors that Ebisu already knew to train the “Do It” command. For example, the owner would twirl around, then give Ebisu the “Do it!” command and also give Ebisu the verbal cure to twirl around.
  2. Next, the owner demonstrated three other behaviors that Ebisu was familiar with and gave her the “Do It!” command without the verbal cues. Once Ebisu successfully imitated her owner, she was ready to learn some new behaviors by copying her owner.

Ebisu successfully learned two new behaviors through imitating her owner:

  1. Sliding a lid on a container to open it – Ebisu succeeded on the first try!
  2. Placing her forearms on a book.

At this point, Ebisu was judged ready to be tested and two new behaviors were assessed in 18 test trials:

  1. Placing her paw on a box
  2. Rubbing her face on a box

During these trials, Ebisu mimicked her owner 80% of the time.  Fumi would put her hand on the box (or rub her face on the box).  She would then tell Ebisu to “Do It!”, and Ebisu would put her paw on the box (or rub her face on the box).

So what do we learn from this?

  • Cats are able to mimic the actions of a human.
  • They are able to adapt human actions to their own bodies – for example, the human touches a box with her hand and the cat touches the box with a front paw.

So, it is worthwhile for us to demonstrate the operation of food puzzles, automatic feeders, cat doors…to help our cats learn how to use these devices.  It should speed up the learning process!

Back to “cracker snatcher” Gus…can cats learn from us?


I really don’t know if Gus learned to pick out a single cracker by watching people but it’s fun to think that he did. And, not having opposable thumbs, he was not able to pick out the cracker with a paw but instead extracted it with his mouth, adapting the action so that he could perform it successfully!

Here is Gus with the box of crackers. Enjoy the video!

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Cat using food puzzle

At the veterinary clinic where I work, I often hear people say when I ask about their cat’s activity and play, “she sleeps most of the time and meows a lot at night. She doesn’t play – she’s an older cat”. How much of these behaviors is due to “normal” aging? How much is due to other medical conditions or a declining brain?

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome in cats or cat dementia refers to the decline in mental abilities associated with aging.

Cat dementia results from damage to the brain.  As your cat ages, the the numbers of molecules called  free radicals are no longer balanced out by the antioxidants in his body. These free radicals are reactive and cross the blood-brain barrier, damaging cells in the brain.

Changes in blood flow to the brain can also cause damage by starving the neurons of oxygen.  High blood pressure, heart disease, anemia – are all conditions that alter the flow of blood to the brain.

How can we tell if our cats are undergoing mental decline? Is there anything we can do about it?

VISHDAAL – behavior changes


Changes in behavior can indicate if your cat’s mental state has declined. The acronym VISHDAAL summarizes the behavior changes we need to monitor in our senior cats, from the most prevalent (vocalizing) to least frequent (changes in learning and memory).

V = vocalization
I = changes in interaction with us and other pets
S = changes in sleep-wake cycle
H = house soiling
D = disorientation
A = changes in activity
A = anxiety
L = learning and memory

How do we sort out behavior changes due to disease and those due to declining mental capacity?

Changes in behavior signal the onset of cognitive decline but they may also arise from other health issues:

  • Cats with untreated high blood pressure or hyperthyroidism may meow at night (vocalizing).
  • Cats with untreated hyperthyroidism may be restless and beg us for food (changes in interactions and sleep).
  • Kidney disease can be accompanied by increased thirst and urination which may result in house soiling (house soiling)
  • Cats with osteoarthritis may have difficulty accessing the litter box (house soiling).

behavior changes: disease vs Dementia


Regular veterinary exams and diagnostics can identify medical conditions such as high blood pressure, hyperthyroidism, and osteoarthritis.  If behavioral changes persist after treating these other medical conditions, your cat may have CDS or cat dementia. 

Cat dementia is a “diagnosis of exclusion” – it is the diagnosis that remains after all the other possible diagnoses have been eliminated. Cat dementia will usually have a slow onset and behavioral symptoms will gradually get worse.

Cognitive Dysfunction (CDS) cannot be cured but management can reduce the symptoms and improve the Quality of Life for both you and your cat.

managing cat dementia


  • environmental enrichment/modification
  • dietary supplements
  • therapeutic diets
  • medication

Environmental enrichment/modification


In the early stages of cat dementia, enrichment increases mental stimulation, leading to the growth and survival of neurons, preserving the thinking processes.  Enrichment should be tailored to the individual cat.  For example, some cats prefer high places; others are “ground dwellers”.  Arthritic cats will not have the range of motion of healthier cats but will still enjoy play that does not require lots of jumping.

Ways to enrich your cat’s environment:

  • play – interactive play and toys
  • scent enrichment – catnip, silvervine
  • food puzzles
  • motion – climbing (cat trees) and exploring (cardboard boxes)
  • supervised outdoor access

As CDS progresses…

Environmental changes become stressful and confusing. Cats with severe cat dementia need an environment that does not change much – daily routines and feeding schedules must be maintained. Litter boxes and feeding stations need to stay in the same place.

A cat with severe CDS may benefit from a “room of his own”, with easy access to his resources. Changes that need to be made must be done slowly. If you need to move a litter box or feeding station, do it gradually over a number of days so the cat can still find it.

Environmental modifications

Modifications to the environment of the cat with dementia should take into account the behavior that she is exhibiting.

  • Cats that constantly beg for food may benefit from a timed feeder at night or treat balls. 
  • Cats with house soiling tendencies may need more litter boxes and ones that are easily accessed, with a lower entry for example. 
  • Cats that become disoriented and confused may benefit from a night light and radio playing soft music.

Dietary Supplements


Dietary supplements in general seek to restore the balance between the activity of antioxidants in the body and the  production of free radicals.  Antioxidants give up electrons to the free radical, effectively “neutralizing” it so that it is no longer reactive. So, these supplements usually contain antioxidants.

SAMe: (S-adenosyl-methionine)  aids in the production of glutathione, an antioxidant. When elderly cats were supplemented with SAMe, there was improvement in cognitive tests. SAMe is best used pro-actively – it is most effective in cats in the early stages of cat dementia.

Proprietary supplements containing vitamins, resveratrol (antioxidant), and fish oils are on the market but there is no clinical data testing cats for these at this time.

other supplements


Melatonin: hormone in the body that is thought to promote sleep. It also has antioxidant properties. Melatonin declines with age.

Pheromones (Feliway), Zylkene, Anxitane (L-theanine) may help reduce anxiety in cats that are disoriented and may promote sleep.

Therapeutic diets


Therapeutic diets containing antioxidants and fish oils have been shown to help cat dementia. 

  • Feline Mature adult Hill’s Pet Nutrition
  • Purina Pro Plan Age 7+
  • Hills prescription diet j/d with fish oil for osteroarthritis

Diets that reduce anxiety may also help with cat dementia

  • RC Calm diets
  • Hill’s urinary support

Medications


Selegiline: licensed to treat dementia in dogs. Like the dietary suplements, it aims to reduce the production of free radicals.  Selegiline stimulates the production of enzymes that eliminate free radicals.

Anxiolytics: Prozac, gabapentin and clonazepam are used to treat dementia by reducing anxiety.

boxes as enrichment for cats
Boxes can be source of enrichment for senior cats.

If you feel there has been a significant change in your cat’s behaviors, keep a journal or log and make sure to mention it at her next senior exam. Start the conversation with your vet about cat dementia and how to manage it!

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Cats greet other friendly cats by sniffing them first, before engaging in other social activities such as rubbing against each other or grooming each other’s heads. Scent is a way that members of a cat colony identify each other.

We are members of our cats’ social groups and they identify us by our  scent. They greet us by sniffing and rubbing against us. When leaving your cat at the vet or boarding facility, you may be asked to bring a blanket or t-shirt with your scent on it.  Does your scent comfort your cat when she is away from you?

Recently, researchers at Oregon State University tried to test whether such an object actually reduces a cat’s anxiety when her owner is gone. In this study, owners of 42 cats were asked to bring an unwashed object with their scent on it. Scent objects could include the owner’s shoe, sock, night shirt, or blanket.

The test started by evaluating the cat’s attachment to his/her owner – secure or insecure?
The owner would then leave: in some trials, the scent object was left behind; in others, the cat was alone.

The cat’s behavior was evaluated:

  • when he was with his owner
  • when he was alone with the scent object
  • when he was alone without the scent object
  • when his owner returned

Measuring attachment
Psychological attachment is measured using the Secure Base Test. The cat and owner are placed in a strange room for a few minutes; the owner then leaves for a few minutes and returns. The cat’s behavior is observed when the owner is present, when cat is alone, and when the owner returns.

Securely attached cats
willing to explore when Owner is present
continue to explore after Owner leaves
greets Owner on return but continues to explore and play

Insecurely attached cats
reluctant to explore even with Owner present
sit with Owner or hide in corner
do not explore when Owner leaves
may or may not solicit contact with Owner on return

Does your scent comfort your cat when you are not with her?


Researchers took videos of the sessions, recording how often cats vocalized, rubbed on their owners or the scent object, and how long they would stay close to the owner or scent object.

Researcher’s predictions


  • Cats would prefer their human caretaker over a scent stimulus alone.
  • Insecurely attached cats would interact with the scent object more than the securely attached cats.
  • Cats would be comforted by their owner’s scent.

what actually happened


  • Cats preferred their owners over the scent object – they vocalized less when owners were with them and rubbed on their owners
  • Insecure cats did spend more time close to the scent object than secure cats but only 4 of the 42 cats actually rubbed the object
  • The scent object did not seem to alleviate anxiety – cats vocalized just as much when alone with the scent object as they did when alone without the scent object.

Cats communicate in a large part by smell. They identify other cats and their owners by their scent and greet them by sniffing them and rubbing against them. To your cat, your t-shirt smells like you but does your scent comfort your cat the way your physical presence does? The answer is no according to this study.

Your t-shirt is not the same for your cat as a teddy bear that a young child clutches to face the world. The teddy bear is a “transitional object” that helps a human child become less dependent on his parents and learn to relate to other people.

Your cat is attached to you – not your t-shirt. It won’t hurt to leave the t-shirt at home when going to the vet or boarding facility.

Other Thoughts


 A cat’s territory where she feels safe is marked with her own scent. Providing your cat with a blanket from home with her scent might make her less anxious.

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Sphynx cat
Some consider Sphynx cats to be “hypoallergenic”.

Did you know that about 1 in 3 people in the United States are allergic to cats and dogs? Those of us who are mildly “allergic” are familiar with the sneezing and runny nose that may come with handling our pets. More severe reactions may include signs of asthma, such as wheezing and difficulty breathing.

What makes us allergic to cats?


A protein called Fel d1 is the primary allergen in cats, accounting for about 95% of the allergy responses in adults sensitive to cats.  Fel d1 is mainly produced in the cat’s salivary and sebaceous glands and is spread through the cat’s fur as he grooms. As he sheds fur and skin (dander), Fel d1 is distributed throughout your home.  Breathing in dander or having contact with it can trigger an allergic reaction in a sensitive person.

Fel d1 is light, easily airborne and can be found just about everywhere, even in pet-free homes and institutions such as schools. Usually these levels are low and do not impact people in general.

Reducing Fel d1 in your home


Being allergic to cats does not always mean you have to re-home your feline friend. What you need to do is reduce the amount of Fel d1 in your home. Here are some things you can do:

  • Fur tends to “stick” more to fabrics – vacuum upholstery and carpets frequently.
  • Consider switching out carpet for hardwood or vinyl floors.
  • Use covers that you can launder on sofas and upholstered chairs.
  • HEPA air filters and HEPA vacuum filters can also help.
  • Clean regularly and frequently.
  • Open the windows when you can.

What about bathing my cat?


Bathing your cat does reduce the amount of Fel d1. Researchers do not agree on how long the beneficial effects last – one study found that washing cats significantly reduced the airborne amount of allergen but the levels of Fel d1 returned to pre-wash levels within the week. Many cats do not like to be bathed – a weekly bath may become a weekly battle.

Purina has developed a waterless shampoo for reducing Fel d1 which does not require immersing the cat in a tub or hosing her down. This may be easier to use if you want to try bathing your cat. The shampoo is said to reduce allergens 33% in 24 hours .

Chickens and Eggs – can they keep us from being allergic to cats?


Chickens produce antibodies against environmental antigens that they can transfer into their eggs and give their chicks immunity against these antigens. Researchers at Nestle-Purina were able to develop an “anti-Fel d1” antibody by exposing hens to Fel d1. This “ anti-Fel d1” reduces the amount of active Fel d1 in the cat’s saliva when the cat eats food containing the “anti- Fel d1” egg product. Purina “Live Clear” is now commercially available after 10 years of research and studies. It has been shown to reduce active Fel d1 by an average of 47% after 3 weeks of feeding.

“Hypoallergenic” cats


All cats produce Fel d1 – some produce more than others. Intact male cats produce more Fel d1 than female cats and neutered and spayed cats.  Older cats may produce less Fel d1 than younger ones.

Some cat breeds are known for not producing much Fel d1. These cats typically do not shed much. It is thought that the reduction in the amount of hair reduces the amount of Fel d1 in the environment. On the other hand, these cats still groom and spread dander that has sebaceous secretions containing Fel d1.  Among breeds thought to produce less Fel d1 are:

  • Sphynx
  • Cornish and Devon Rex
  • Siberian cats (may have a genetic mutation that causes them to release less Fel d1)
  • Russian blue
  • Balinese
  • Peterbald
Sphynx cat doll
A doll based on a Sphynx cat!

 

What does the future hold for those of us  who are allergic to cats?


The Crisper Cat: A Virginia based company, Indoor Biotechnologies, is looking into removing the Fel d1 gene from cat cells in order to develop a truly “hypoallergenic” cat.

A Vaccine to Make Cats less Allergenic: Saiba Animal Health is developing a vaccine for cats that will induce “anti-Fel d1” antibodies to form in vaccinated cats.  These antibodies will bind Fel d1 and will effectively neutralize its allergenic effect on humans.

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You’ve had a tough day at work – you couldn’t keep anyone happy. You arrive home and your cat is there at the door as you come in. He rubs around your legs and stands up to bump your hand with his head. Of course, he is there for his dinner but afterwards, he will snuggle up to you on the sofa to watch some TV – at least, he seems happy with you!

Your relationship with your cat is more than just providing him with food and a warm place to sleep – it is also about the comfort you get from him when you are stressed. A recent study authored by Mauro Ines and colleagues looked at the different types of relationships that exist between cats and their people. They looked at the cat-owner relationship in terms of attachment AND social support.

cat-owner relationship


attachment


Attachment refers to an emotional bond between two individuals where each feels more secure  and comforted when with the other.

We not only provide our cats with food and shelter but also security and comfort. As a consequence, our cats are ATTACHED to us and stay close to us.

social support


Social Support refers to a network of family and friends that you can turn to when you are stressed or feeling isolated and lonely.

In terms of social support, our cats make us feel needed because they need us to care for them. They give us a break from the complexities of interacting with people – they are available, not judgmental or unpredictable.

Mauro Ines’ research team conducted an extensive survey of cat owners. After the dust cleared, there were 3994 “reliable” responses for statistical analysis.

The study used four categories to evaluate cat-owner relationships:

  1. The Owner’s emotional investment in the cat
  2. The cat’s acceptance of people other than the Owner
  3. The cat’s need to be close to the Owner
  4. How friendly the cat was toward the Owner

Statistical analysis of the surveys revealed 5 distinct cat-owner relationships. 

In three of these relationships (52% of the surveys), owners have a low level of emotional investment in their cats. The cats and owners do not seem to be very attached nor do they offer each other much social support.

  1. “Open”
    • Owner has a “neutral” emotional investment in the cat
    • The cat typically goes outdoors
    • The cat is friendly to people in general
    • Cat has some affiliation with the owner.
    • These cats do not seek out owners when distressed.
  2. “Remote”
    • Owner has a low level of emotional investment in the cat
    • Owner does not view the cat as part of the family.
    • The cat is often be sociable with people other than the Owner
    • The cat does not seek out the Owner when distressed.
  3. “Casual”
    • Owner has a low level of emotional investment
    • The cat is sociable and friendly with other people
    • Little evidence that the cat discriminates the Owner from other people
    • These cats may visit other households in the neighborhood

 

About 45% of the surveys came from Owners with a high emotional investment in their cats.  These Owners scored high on items like “my cat will often lick my hands or face”.  These cats and owners have stronger relationships, both in terms of attachment and social support.

  1. “Co-dependent”
    • These cats prefer to be close to their owners
    • These cats are wary of people other than the Owner
    • Usually a single-person household
    • The cat is indoor-only
    • Owner and cat play together frequently
  2. “Friendship”
    • Usually a multi-cat home
    • These cats are often friendly with people other than the Owner
    • These cats like to be near the Owner but are not “clingy”
    • The Owner and cats have a “friendly” relationship but can function independently of each other.

A study like the one described above can have inherent biases that can limit its value in describing cat owners in general.  For instance, the bulk of the survey responses came from women in the UK (66%). Only 10% of the responses came from US residents.  In the UK, it is common for cats to have outdoor access (90%), whereas in the US, it is estimated that upward of 65% of pet cats are primarily indoors.  If we were to survey cat owners in the US, would we find a greater percentage of “co-dependent” relationships? Would we find more emotionally invested owners with indoor-only cats?

This study, while interesting, is certainly not the last word in how cats bond with their people. However, it does suggest that the cat-human relationship is more than a simple caregiver- dependent relationship.

Why do a study like this? 


One of the leading reasons why cats are relinquished to animal shelters is behavior problems. A better understanding of the cat-owner relationship could help resolve or possibly avoid such problem behaviors, keeping the cat in his home and improving the welfare of both cat and owner.

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Needs of Domestic cats

Abraham Maslow first introduced his concept of a hierarchy of needs in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”. In this paper, he postulated that people are motivated by five types of needs.
He assigned a hierarchy to these needs, which are often shown in a  pyramid diagram, with physical needs at the bottom. Applying this to our cats can give us insight into the cat-human bond.

Needs and motivation


The five categories that Maslow came up with are:

  1. Physical needs (food, water)
  2. Safety
  3. Love/belonging
  4. esteem
  5. self-fulfillment (be all that you can be)

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

As an individual satisfies needs in one of these categories, he is motivated to tackle the next level.

  1. What motivates behavior at the most basic level is the need to survive. We need to eat and drink to stay alive.
  2. Having satisfied these needs, the next step is to ensure that we will continue to have food and water. We need shelter and a job.
  3. Once fed and secure, we can address the need to be part of society – to belong to a group.
  4. The next level of needs is esteem: we need to value ourselves and feel that other people value us.
  5. We are now at the top of the pyramid. We can work on reaching self-imposed goals: maybe become a writer or artist, nurture extended family, or climb mountains.

Of course, there is flexibility in this hierarchy- some needs are met at the same time; for some individuals, reaching your full potential may be more important than the esteem of others.

what do cats need? wild cats


  • A wild cat’s needs begin with having prey to eat.
  • Once fed, he will find a safe place where he can sleep, eat and retreat from danger – like a den.
  • He must establish his territory where he can hunt regularly and have access to food.
  • A well-fed wildcat who hunts successfully has good prospects for mating. 
  • As far as Nature is concerned, the wildcat has reached his or her full potential once he or she has ensured that there will be another generation to hunt and mate, continuing the species.What does a wildcat need?

 

what do cats need? Domestic cats


Things are a bit different for the cat who lives with humans. Hunting and establishing a territory have become separate from getting enough food; our house cats are spayed and neutered, so do not have a drive to mate and reproduce. We can construct a hierarchy showing what do cats need for the cats that live with us.

the 5 pillars of a healthy feline environment


The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) list five things that make a healthy environment for a cat. We can assemble these into a hierarchy of needs.

  1. Resources : food, water, litter box, shelter
  2. Safe access to resources
  3. Belonging: territory
  4. Human interaction: predictable
  5. Full potential: predatory behavior

Needs of Domestic cats

  • At the bottom of the pyramid are the needs for survival: food, water, and litter boxes.
  • The next level ensures that these essential resources are available to each cat to use safely, without fear. The cat owner should provide multiple, separate feeding and watering stations and litter boxes.
  • One of the AAFP requirements is an environment that respects the cat’s sense of smell.  Such an environment is the cat’s territory. Cats will mark walls and furniture in the home with facial pheromones and scratching posts with pheromones released when scratching. Your cat belongs to his territory.

The old way of thinking about cats as aloof and independent, would most likely consider the cat’s needs are met at this point.

What do cats need and the cat-human bond


Our cats share basic physiological needs with their wild relatives. But the domestic cat has chosen a different path and has some different needs because of his bond with his human caregiver. The two final levels of the pyramid are 4) positive and predictable human interaction and 5) the opportunity for predatory play.

  • Human Interaction: To truly feel safe and secure in her territory, a housecat needs to know how the humans in the house will behave: when will she be fed? Will they approach quietly and greet her? Will they swoop down on her and pick her up when she least expects it and hold her dangling in the air?
  • Predatory Play: The need to hunt defines who your cat is – this is what he was born to do.  We need to provide our cats with an opportunity to hunt – if it is fishing kibble out of a food puzzle or chasing a stuffed mouse at the end of a wand toy.

These last two needs bring us to the heart of the cat-human bond.

Positive and predictable interactions  allow us to communicate with our cats; predatory play helps us recognize the cat’s nature as a born hunter and allows us to share this essential part of his life.

In return for helping our cats satisfy their needs, we humans enjoy the pleasure of our cats’ company, better heart health and reduced stress and anxiety. 

“Time spent with cats is never wasted.” – Sigmund Freud

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Secure Base test for cat

The stereotype of the aloof, independent cat is being challenged. Do our cats bond with us, their human caregivers? How does this attachment affect the well-being of our cats?

Studies into animal cognition suggest that cats show attachments to their caregivers, similar to those exhibited by human children and dogs.

Researchers at Oregon State University tested a group of cats and caregivers using The Secure Base Test. This test was developed to evaluate attachments to caregivers in apes and dogs; a variant is used with human children.

secure and insecure attachments


In the Secure Base Test for cats,  a cat and his owner were placed in a strange room for 2 minutes. After 2 more minutes, the owner would leave and the cat would be alone. The owner would return in another 2 minutes.

Cats were described as “securely” attached and “insecurely” attached. About 2/3 of the cats were “securely” attached. These cats were willing to explore the room with their owners present and continue to explore after the owners left.  When the owner returned, a “securely” attached cat would greet his owner but would continue to explore and play.

“Insecurely” attached cats were reluctant to explore and sat with their owners or hid in a corner. On return of the owners, some of these cats wanted physical contact with their owners while others avoided contact and did not seem to know what to do.

This makes me think of children at their first day of school – some kids are adventurous while others cling to their parents. So, it seems that our cats bond with us much like dogs and children.

Our personalities and our cats


Another study looked at how owner personality can affect a cat’s well-being. Over 3000 cat owners responded to a survey asking questions about the their personalities and how they characterized their cats’ behavior and health.

Owner personalities were evaluated using the Big Five test. The Big Five test assigns a score for each of the five traits below to describe an individual’s personality.

  1. Openness – willingness to embrace new experiences
  2. Conscientiousness – how responsible and organized a person is
  3. Extroversion – how social and outgoing you are
  4. Agreeableness – how cooperative, kind and trusting you are
  5. Neuroticism – prone to anxiety and depression

FINDINGS:


  1. Owners scoring high in the anxious (neurotic) category were more likely to have cats with medical and behavioral problems; these cats were often more aggressive, anxious or fearful
  2. Owners scoring high in openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, and agreeableness often had cats that were less fearful and anxious, and more friendly.

These results parallel human studies: Less anxious, open, and agreeable parents are able to provide their children with guidance and limits, without a controlling, authoritarian bias. Children are happier, cooperative, and have fewer behavior problems.

THE TAKEAWAY


  • We can’t change who we are but we need to remember that because our cats bond with us, our moods and behavior, especially when we are stressed and anxious, can affect them. 
  • We need to avoid micromanaging our cats and let them be cats, doing the things cats do.
  • We need to try to see the world from the “feline purrspective”.

 

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Cats on leashes

 

The other day I was walking with Gus around the pond on the condo property. A neighbor came down the path – Gus approached him with his tail up, in greeting. The neighbor did not reciprocate but instead stopped a few feet away from Gus. Gus sat down and stayed still. The neighbor then walked by and muttered “ typical cat” as he passed by.

The neighbor clearly did not understand the tail up greeting. I wondered what he expected from Gus – was Gus supposed to come over wagging his tail? Gus approached with his tail up in friendly greeting. When the greeting was not returned (the neighbor did not offer his hand or get down on Gus’s level), Gus sat, and tried to figure out where the interaction was going – was it hostile or neutral? It certainly was not friendly.

Cats – Mysterious?


cat with tail upIndeed, we are more familiar with dogs’ body language than that of cats. People see dogs as more social than cats. Someone getting a puppy will plan to take it places, walk it and play with it.

Kittens often stay at home and don’t venture out into the outside world – we don’t have to walk them; after all they have litter boxes. Once the kitten grows into a cat, people often don’t “play” with her that much – after all she is getting older and seems to sleep most of the time. Many cat owners are not aware of the importance of “play” or hunting practice to a born hunter.

   cats – social and trainable


In the past few decades, cats have increased in popularity as pets.  Consequently, cat behavior and cat care have become popular subjects to study.  We have learned that cats are social animals and can be trained. The stereotype of the aloof, antisocial cat is starting to change. We are starting to change how we think about cats.

We have found that kittens learn most efficiently during the “sensitive period, 2-7 weeks of age. Kittens who are handled kindly and gently by a variety of humans during the sensitive period quickly learn to accept people and enjoy being with them. [What Makes a Friendly Cat? ]

In the veterinary world, the Cat-Friendly Practice initiative aims to make vet visits more pleasant for cats and their owners. The Cat Friendly Practice acknowledges that “ cats are not small dogs”. Handling techniques geared toward reducing stress and acknowledgement of the cat’s superlative sense of smell are highlights of this program.

Many of us have had more time at home with our pets in the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is an increasing trend toward “humanizing” cats and dogs, celebrating their birthdays and giving them Christmas presents.   While giving toys or tasty food on special days is harmless, we need to avoid treating cats as small humans in fur suits. They are CATS, a different species with their own behaviors and ways of communicating. [The Cat-Human Bond]

    change how we think about cats


A quiet revolution is happening – be part of it. Change how we think about cats. Show people that cats are social and part of the family and that we can communicate with them by training them.

  • Train your cat to walk on a leash or ride in a backpack or stroller
  • Train your cat to a place in the living room where he can safely hangout while people are visiting
  • Video your cat sitting on command and post on social media
  • Are you or someone you know getting a kitten? Enroll in a kitten kindergarten or get a group of friends together to do your own!

So take on the challenge.  Train your cat – become a “cat whisperer” and change how we think about cats!

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