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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Friendly cat greeting a human

 

You’re watching TV with your cat on your lap, absentmindedly stroking her. Suddenly, out of the blue, she swats you and jumps down. You rub your hand and wonder, “What was that all about?”

There are few practical guidelines for interacting with cats. A research team conducted a study at the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in the UK to remedy this. The study tested a simple set of Human-Cat Interaction (HCI) guidelines that 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!

C is for Choice and Control
A is for Attention
T is for Touch

 

choice and control…


Our cats’ ancestors were solitary hunters. They had to look out for themselves – if they were injured, they could not hunt; no hunting meant no food.

Cats are accomplished hunters but they are also prey for larger predators, such as coyotes. Consequently, cats are “control freaks” – to survive, they need to be in control of their interactions with their environment.

Allow a 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.

Attention….


Pay attention to the cat’s body language and behavior. The following signals indicate that the cat is done interacting with you.

  • 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.

touch…


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.

Trying out the practical guidelines for interacting with cats


In the Battersea study, testing was conducted in 2 sessions: a “control” session and a second session after the human participant watched a 5 minute video demonstrating the CAT guidelines.

In each session, both control and post-video, the human participant visited with 3 cats, spending 5 minutes with each cat.

In the control session, the participant was instructed to remain seated in the cat’s room and interact with the cat as he or she usually would. The session was recorded by video.

After watching the instructional video, the participant would visit with 3 more cats as before, except following the CAT guidelines.

A total of 535 observations were made.
For each observation, cat behavior and posture was assessed and rated; the human participants were scored on how closely they followed the CAT guidelines.

Did the practical guidelines for interacting with cats work?


Before CAT instruction:
Cats in the control visits displayed more instances of human-directed aggression and more behaviors associated with conflict than cats in the post-education visits.

After CAT instruction:
The human participants in the study started following the CAT guidelines and the cats displayed more friendly and positive behaviors than in the control visits.

So, back to the cat on your lap in front of the TV. She became tired of being petted and may have indicated this by flattening her ears and turning her head to give you a meaningful look but you were not paying attention!

  • Let her Control the stroking (“ask” if she wants to continue)
  • Pay Attention to her body language (rippling skin? twitching tail? “airplane” ears?)
  • Touch her where she is comfortable being touched; if in doubt, stick with the base of the ears, the cheeks, and under the chin.

postscript


If you need to handle your cat and she’s not having it, try to make it worthwhile for her. Offer her a treat or a toy to put her in a positive emotional state.

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Clicker training your cat pairs the sound of the clicker, a small handheld gadget, with a treat or some other thing the cat likes. When the cat hears the click, he knows that a treat or something good is on its way. If the cat sits when he hears the word “sit” and hears a click as he sits, he will look for his expected reward. If he receives the reward, he will be more likely to “sit” next time upon command.

At the core of clicker training your cat are two learning processes: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Let’s look at these two ways of learning.

Classical Conditioning – An involuntary response is associated with a stimulus


Pavlov meme
During the 1890’s, a Russian scientist, Ivan Pavlov was studying digestion in dogs, measuring the amount of saliva produced by a group of dogs presented with meat.

Pavlov noticed that:

  • the dogs would drool when food was placed in front of them
  • they would also drool before they received the meat, when they heard the footsteps of the assistant bringing the meat.

This started a series of experiments using lights, metronomes and, of course, bells to stimulate the drooling.  Pavlov had discovered the learning process that we now call “classical conditioning”, where an involuntary response like salivating is associated with a stimulus, the ringing of a bell.

Operant conditioning – A voluntary behavior is associated with aN outcome


Likewise, snapping the lid off a can of cat food can help call the kitties to dinner. The dogs connected the ringing of the bell with food; your cats may be accustomed or conditioned to associate the sound of  the can opening with being fed. This is another example of “classical conditioning”.

Your cat has heard the can opening. Now, he must decide whether he is going to come for dinner. Most of the time, he makes the decision to come when “called”, anticipating a dinner of cat food. This “voluntary” response is the learning process called operant conditioning – the cat has control over whether he comes or not.

Folks who study behavior have identified 4 different scenarios in operant learning: 2 that increase the likelihood that the behavior being trained will be repeated and 2 that decrease the likelihood that the behavior is repeated.

operant conditioning – 4 scenarios


INCREASE THE BEHAVIOR


POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT


Treats to reward cats

ADD a good outcome – the cat is likely to perform the behavior again.

We ask the cat to “sit” and when he sits, we give him a tasty treat. We REWARD the behavior of sitting.

DECREASE THE BEHAVIOR


POSITIVE PUNISHMENT


cat on counter

ADD something unpleasant to discourage a behavior.

Your kitty jumps up on the counter and you spray her with water. She jumps down. You have added an unpleasant spray of water (punishment) to getting up on the counter.

negative reinforcement


TAKE AWAY something unpleasant- the cat is likely to do what stops what’s unpleasant.

You are trying to trim your cat’s nails but the moment you touch her foot with the clippers, she growls and hisses and you stop. It is likely next time, she will growl and hiss to stop you from trimming her nails. You are reinforcing her behavior of hissing and growling at nail trims by “removing” the unpleasant nail trim.

negative punishment


TAKE AWAY something the cat likes to discourage a behavior.

Your cat wakes you up at night to be petted. You put her outside the bedroom and close the door. You are removing the opportunity for some stroking that your cat enjoys with the hope that your cat will not wake you up in the future.

THE PROBLEM WITH positive PUNISHMENT

  • It is difficult to get the timing right – you must spray the cat as she is jumping on the counter otherwise she may associate something else (you) with the spray of water
  • Punishment does not remove a behavior.  There is an immediate effect – kitty jumps off the counter – but she may continue to jump on the counter if you are NOT there to spray her. 
  • Devices like a SSSCAT (a motion-activated spray system) may keep her off the counter as long as they are working.  A concern with these devices is injury if the cat is startled and falls off the counter.
  • Punishment can put the cat into an anxious, fearful state, anticipating a consequence (punishment) the cat does not understand. 

“Classical” conditioning and “operant” conditioning with positive reinforcement form the core of clicker training your cat.

  • The cat learns to associate the “click” of the clicker with food or something he values.
  • He will choose to perform a behavior, like sitting upon command, anticipating a treat.

Positive reinforcement is the most successful training technique because the cat will not be fearful or anxious but will be in a positive emotional state, ready to learn – after all, something good will happen!

 

A POSTSCRIPT


What to try if your cat hates nail trims

Positive reinforcement!

  1. Start by handling her feet and giving her a treat for each paw you pick up.
  2. Move on to touching her feet with the nail clippers, and give her treats for each paw.
  3. Work up to trimming a few claws at a time, and of course, reward her!

Counter Surfing

With kitchen counters, the drive to seek food is strong and difficult for a cat to suppress. Also, cats instinctively, “go for the high ground”, especially if they are avoiding something they are leery of.

  1. Is your cat jumping on the counter to get food or avoid the dog and the toddler? You may need to control the dog or toddler.
  2. Keep food off the counters unless you are preparing it.
  3. Find a place (preferably high) for kitty to sit while you are working at the counter and reward him for sitting there.
  4. Sometimes, using “aversives”, things cats don’t like, may help. For example, using a non-toxic citrus spray on the counter or using an upside-down carpet runner (with the “spikes” facing up) may deter jumping up on the counter.
  5. If your cat is driving you crazy or may get hurt, put him in a safe place with all his resources while you prepare food.

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The other day, a kitten came into the clinic for his 4 month exam and vaccines. He was a ball of energy and wanted to climb up me so I took out a toy from one of the cabinet drawers to play with him. This toy was a small wand with bells and feathers on it. I whisked the trailing feathers on the floor by him.

Poor fellow – the toy must have startled and scared him – he puffed up and hissed. I put the toy on the floor for him to examine – he approached tentatively, smelled the feathers and hissed again, so I put the toy away.

Later, when the doctor came into to do his examination, I pulled the toy out of the cabinet to show her; the kitten saw it and hissed again.

Why do cats hiss? What does it mean?


Domestic cats are capable of making at least 21 discrete vocalizations; our cats use these sounds to communicate with us – each cat has his/her own repertoire of sounds to tell us what he/she wants or feels.

How the hiss is made


The hiss is a long forceful exhalation made with the mouth open and the teeth bared. A hiss is a hiss – hisses among cats sound similar – it is a “voiceless” communication. The hiss can be made in a number of situations – we must look to the context and body language to interpret it.

When do cats hiss?


  • when they are afraid: Although we may associate hissing with anger and aggression, cats are more likely to hiss when they are afraid; it is usually the defensive cat who hisses in the cat fight. When accompanied by the fur standing on end, dilated pupils, and a cringing posture, the message is “I am afraid; leave me alone. I will defend myself if I have to.”
  • when they are startled – the “fight or flight” response is triggered; fur may be standing on end while the cat assesses the situation – is there danger?
  • when they are in pain – a hiss might mean don’t touch my “ouchy” spot – it hurts!
  • when they are frustrated/displeased – a cat may hiss when things are not going his way. My cat, Gus, will hiss when waiting for dinner (if service is slow!) or when another cat gets in his way. These hisses tend to be short and are not accompanied by fur on end, dilated pupils or change in posture.

Other thoughts on why cats hiss


  • Some experts think that cats hiss to mimic a snake and scare off attackers. Early mammals evolved in a landscape dominated by reptiles, which could be deadly. Evolutionarily, the hiss is coupled with fear for many mammals.  Perhaps, cats are taking advantage of this connection of the hiss with fear.
  • While we may hush a baby to soothe it or shush someone to keep them quiet, your cat may not interpret these sounds the same way. Instead, shhh and hush may sound like a hiss to her, perhaps triggering a fearful/anxious response.

Back to our kitten friend, his initial hiss with his fur puffed up was due to being startled, with the accompanying rush of adrenalin as he did not know if this toy was dangerous.

When the kitten smelled the toy, he hissed again but without fear (no puffy fur) – perhaps he could smell other cats on this toy and this made him a little anxious (are these other cats who played with this toy friendly?)

He hissed again on seeing the toy from across the exam room, letting us know he did NOT like that toy!

In the video below, Gus and Marley are waiting for treats. Gus swats Marley and then gives a long hiss. His body posture is not tense, although he turns to the side to look more threatening; his fur is not puffed up. He is warning Marley to keep his distance (“and don’t even think of going for my treats!”)

Humans may curse or swear when they are annoyed, startled, excited, or in pain – cats, on the other hand, hiss. The hiss tells us the cat is experiencing a negative emotion.  Before handling him, look to his body language to see if he is afraid, reacting to a painful stimulus or merely annoyed.

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Cat with half-closed eyes

You’re reading a book in bed, your cat curled up alongside you. You look over at him and he meets your gaze with several blinks, half-closing his eyes. The feline “slow blink” has been likened to a smile; the meme “i slow blink you so much” infers that the “slow blink” is a sign of affection, of positive feelings when cats slow blink.

Cats don’t “smile” in the way humans do. Humans are said to have up to 19 different smiles, due to our faces having 42 muscles to shape them. Does the feline “slow blink” fill the same role as the human smile?

the duchenne smile in humans


The so-called “Duchenne” smile, which some think indicates genuine happiness, can be accompanied by activity in the left frontal cortex of the brain, a part of the brain associated with enjoyment. The Duchenne smile is that smile that reaches the eyes, wrinkling the skin around the eyes into “crows feet”.

Does the “Duchenne” smile signal true happiness? Skeptics point out that it can be faked; the smile may just be  a way of sending a message to those we are interacting with that we are friendly, willing to work together or want to go out on a date. We may not be genuinely happy at the time.

Cats slow blink – a cat smile?


Tasmin Humphrey and her colleagues set out to learn more about the “slow blink”. They designed two sets of experiments to answer:

  • Do cats respond to humans that slow blink?
  • Are cats more likely to approach an unknown human after a slow blink interaction?

To answer the first question, cats were tested in a familiar room at home. The owner was instructed to sit in front of the cat and, once the cat made eye contact, do a series of “slow blinks”. Cameras were set up to record the cat’s face and the owner’s face. The slow blink trials were a paired with a “no interaction” trial, where the owner was in the room but did not sit in front of the cat or interact with the cat.

The second set of experiments involved an unfamiliar person in place of the owner. In this experiment, the control was a neutral face and no direct eye contact. The owner remained in the room during these trials but did not interact with the cat.

Humphrey and her colleagues found that:

  • Cats were more likely to “slow blink” back if their owners “slow-blinked” them
  • Cats were more likely to approach an unknown human who “slow blinked” them

The slow blink and the cat-human bond


Direct stares are hostile in the cat’s world – he needs to keep a steady, open eye on possibly dangerous people, animals and situations. When one cat fixes another with an unblinking stare, trouble is brewing – the passive aggressive stare can precede active aggression.

Breaking the stare with blinking, shows that the cat is relaxed and not on high alert. Cats not only “slow blink” humans, they have been seen to “slow blink” other cats. The “slow blink” may indicate a level of trust between human and cat or between cat and cat.

Like the Duchenne smile in humans, the “slow blink” may indicate that the cat is feeling relaxed, calm and happy or it might also just be a message, like the “solicitation purr”, asking for food, head rubs, or just more interaction.  But perhaps cats slow blink us because they trust us and share a bond with us.

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Why do cats purr? What does a purr mean? I would say that most of us think of a purring cat as contented. I wondered if there was more to the purr – my ex-street cat, Gus, does not seem to purr at all.

Contented Cat

How cats purr


Purring seems effortless. People who study purring say that the opening and closing of the vocal folds (vocal cords) in the cat’s larynx while he breathes in and out produces the sound we call “purring”.

Purring is different from other vocalizations such as meowing because it occurs not only when the cat breathes out, but also when he breathes in. Meowing, hissing, chirping, for example, occur only on expiration, when breathing out.

Purring is a low frequency sound (25-150 Hz) and does not vary much in frequency. Vocalizations like the meow are higher frequency sounds. They are generated by vibrations of the vocal folds in the larynx. Changes in the tension (length) of the vocal folds produce sounds with a range of several octaves at frequencies exceeding 100 Hz.

The cat can control the separation of his vocal folds independently of their length (or tension).  So the cat can purr while he is meowing!

the cats that roar and the cats that purr


Around 1916, Reginald Innes Pocock divided the cat family into the “cats that roar” (lion, tiger, jaguar, leopards) and the “cats that purr” (domestic cats, cheetahs). This classification was based on the anatomy of the hyoid bone, a u-shaped bone in the neck that supports the tongue. Currently, the hyoid bone is not thought to determine whether or not a cat can purr (indeed, snow leopards can purr).  The classification of cat species is now based on molecular characteristics, eg. DNA.

when cats purr


So, cats purr as they breathe in and out and their vocal folds open and close. When do they purr?

Feline guru John Bradshaw notes that cats may purr:

  • when being groomed by another cat
  • a cat may purr while grooming himself
  • kittens purr while nursing and often their mother joins in
  • some cats purr when they are just walking around
  • when greeting a friendly cat
  • when in contact with another cat

Purring is not particularly loud (when compared with a howl!) and is heard over short distances; it most likely originated as a sound made by kittens, to induce their mother to feed them. Purring kittens with mama cat is the ultimate picture of contentment!

the healing purr


Cats are know to purr when they are in pain or anxious, for example, at the veterinary clinic. The purr ranges in frequency from 25 – 150 Hz. The purr of domestic cats, servals, ocelots, and pumas produce strong frequencies at 25 Hz, 50 Hz and 100 Hz.

In human medicine, the application of low frequency vibrations (25-50 Hz) has been found to inhibit bone loss and initiate bone repair.  Frequencies around 100 Hz are used to treat pain, swelling, and wounds .

Are cats able to heal themselves by purring ? Is purring a “feel good” (self-soothing) behavior? (So why isn’t Gus purring?)

The “solicitation purr”


Earlier, we noted that a cat can vocalize and purr at the same time. Cats have taken advantage of this and have developed a “solicitation purr”,  one that has a meow embedded in the purr. Cats have discovered how to use this to alert their owners to their needs, like “I want food”.

Acoustical analysis of the “solicitation purr” shows a peak around 380 Hz in the purr spectra. This frequency is more typical of a cry or meow, not the low frequency purr and is close  to the frequency of a human infant’s cry (300–600Hz)

This cry gives the “solicitation purr” its urgency that drives us to attend to the cat, giving her head rubs, food or whatever else we think she needs. It taps into our inborn sensitivity to the cries of infants, making it hard to ignore.

The purr is a lot more than the sound of a contented cat. It can also be a greeting, a self-soothing behavior or healing mechanism, or a request for someone to do something for the cat. It is a quiet sound so make sure you don’t miss it!

And back to Gus, maybe that rumbly sound in his meows when he rubs against my legs are “solicitation purrs”.  I will keep listening!

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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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cat with toy box

How do I know if my cat has a good quality of life? Take a minute and look at your cat’s life to see if the positive experiences outweigh the negative ones.

Quality of Life or QOL is just what it says – what is the quality of health, comfort and happiness experienced by an individual human or animal? Assessing QOL can help you decide which treatment to choose for a sick pet or help you improve your cat’s welfare.

QOL tends to come up when a pet is ill and euthanasia is being considered. Because of this association with end of life, evaluating quality of life is often neglected at other times in life. 

When my older cat was not doing well recently, I was thinking about her QOL.  It occurred to me that QOL is something that we should be aware of and assess regularly. It is a good idea to evaluate this when we feel our cat is healthy and happy so that we have a comparison for when he is sick, in pain, or feeling insecure or threatened.

If a cat has a good quality of life, he will have many positive experiences and have few negative experiences.

Let’s start with a cat’s basic needs…

  • Every cat needs a safe place – somewhere she can go, away from other pets and humans
  • He needs food, water and litter boxes that he can use without  being interfered with by other cats, dogs or humans
  • A stable environment allows a cat to feel confident and secure.  This environment is predictable, without too much physical change, and offers opportunities for positive experiences, say outdoor access to a backyard.
  • Interactions with humans and other pets should be pleasant and not frightening (so tell the kids not to run and shriek at the cat!)
  • Your cat is a born hunter so he needs to have opportunities for predatory activity – either through play or foraging toys.

How do i know if my cat has a good quality of life?


In addition to the basic needs, what about the needs of the individual cat? Pain, emotional state, presence of strange humans and other pets or environmental stress can impact quality of life. Let’s look at the Quality of Life of 16 year old Athena.

positive experiences


Cat with automatic toy

  1. Athena sleeps at the foot of the bed or under the covers when it is cold.
  2. She likes the treats she gets before and after having her twice daily thyroid medication.
  3. She likes to scratch on the scratching posts –  in the bedroom and by the door to the backyard.
  4. She will nap in her heated bed when it is cold or on the bed upstairs when it is warm.
  5. When the weather is nice, she will go out into the backyard.
  6. In the evenings, she enjoys a grooming session followed by some play with  a fishing pole toy or laser pointer.
  7. Her day finishes up with some dental treats.

 

Negative experiences


liquid medication for cat

  1. Athena gets another medication in the morning – a bitter liquid which she does not like.
  2. She does not like the other cats and prefers to avoid them
  3. She has arthritis and her joints hurt.
  4. Sometimes she is nauseated – she will approach her food, sniff it, but not eat.

Athena enjoys about 2 x as many positive experiences as negative experiences in her day. Although she suffers from arthritis pain and is not fond of other cats, she is still able to enjoy the positive things her environment offers her, such as going outdoors and engaging in predatory play. Overall, her QOL is good but here are some improvements.

  1. Giving food paste (for example, chicken baby food) before and after her bitter medication helps “get the bad taste out  of her mouth”. We end the medicating process on a positive note with her favorite dry treats.
  2. So that Athena can avoid the other cats, she eats from her own microchip-controlled feeder.  The other cats have learned that the feeder does not open for them.
  3. Athena receives an injection of joint protecting supplement to help alleviate her joint pain. She also has steps up to the bed and a heated bed to nap in.
  4. If she seems nauseated, she receives medication.

HOW DO I KNOW IF MY CAT HAS A GOOD QUALITY OF LIFE?


THE TAKEAWAY:


  • You want your cat’s life to have more positive experiences than negative experiences.
  • Make a list and see what the positive/negative balance is. Are there more positives than negatives? How can you improve things?
  • Compare and update lists before you take your cat in for his annual or bi-annual vet exam.
  • By being aware of your cat’s daily behaviors, you will be able to provide medical care and supportive care when needed, and preempt behavior issues.

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Cats plays with featther toy1

Keeping active physically has a lot of benefits for people. It helps your mind work better – you learn things more easily. Physical exercise helps increase your muscle mass and strength. It also tends to induce a positive mood or emotional state.

Exercising your cat can give your cat the same boost we get from physical activity. Unfortunately, just like us, it is easy for them to become couch potatoes.

My 16 year old, Athena, is the equivalent of an 80 year old person. She has developed osteoarthritis and chronic kidney disease. To help with the arthritis, I have provided her with steps to get places and litter boxes with lower entrances. This winter I bought her a heated bed which she really likes. I noticed, however, that she was spending an awful lot of time in this bed and not moving around as much.

Although heat increases blood flow and makes connective tissue temporarily more flexible, it also stimulates inflammation and swelling. So some heat is good for comfort but I wanted to reduce the inflammation associated with Athena’s arthritis and cheer her up a bit!

Exercising your Cat – A good Rx

  • Exercise reduces inflammation: Your body’s cells produce proteins called cytokines that regulate immunity and inflammation. Humans with arthritis who exercise produce more cytokines that reduce inflammation. Cells in cat’s bodies produce similar cytokines so exercise can also reduce inflammation in cats.
  • Exercise strengthens the muscles that surround joints making movement easier and less painful.
  • Exercise improves mood, memory, reduces anxiety and helps the GI tract to function better.

The TAKEAWAY: Daily play (exercise) is good for cats of all ages!

Here are some exercises to work into your cat’s daily play time.  Make sessions short and positive and work at your cat’s own pace.

Cat sitting up
Gus sits up on his hind legs.

More Please!:  Holding a treat or toy above your cat’s head, encourage him to sit up with his front feet off the ground for a few seconds. This is good for kitty’s core muscles.

Catch the bird:  A feather toy on a wand can encourage your cat to “stand up”, engaging his core muscles.

 

Catnip/silvervine Roll: If your cat enjoys catnip or silver vine, by all means indulge her. The catnip response lasts less then 10 min and often involves rolling around, which is good for kitty’s core muscles.

Cat walking on cushions
Athena has to shift her weight and balance to walk across the cushions.

Balancing: Have your cat walk over an uneven surface such as a bed or several pillows. She will need to shift her weight to keep her balance, exercising her legs, core, back muscles and more. She can follow a feather toy, target stick with food on the end or a trail of treats!

Strengthen back legs:  Following a string up the stairs or cat tree will put more weight on the rear legs. Alternate exercise: have kitty stand with his front legs up on some cushions or books so more of his weight is on his rear legs for a few seconds. Start low at first. Pet his head and reward him.

Strengthen front legs: Following a toy or string (slowly) down the stairs or cat tree will put more weight on your cat’s front legs.  Alternate exercise: you can use a soft towel or blanket around her lower belly to lift her hind legs, putting more weight on the front legs for a few seconds.  Start in a stationary position. Work up to going forward. Head rubs and treats will make this fun for your cat!

Cardio! Do a little play with the laser pointer, wand toys or shoelaces. Make sure to put these toys away when the play session is done.

Exercising your cat will help her to be happier and feel better. Less pain and better mood translates to better relationships for your cat with people and other pets! Remember, this does not have to take a lot of time: 10-15 minutes should do the trick!

 

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