Jackson is curled in the magenta armchair, which gets morning sun. For the next few hours, he’ll fold himself over his food bowl, or sprawl long on the floor, or prop himself against the white wall outside the bathroom door, or sit beside me on the couch, where I indent the same seat, every pandemic work day. He sits like this:
There’s an afternoon nap in his blanket-lined crate, then after-work pacing, then his most hyper phase in the evening, when he’ll chase toys back and forth across the runner rug or pounce on the lump formed by my hand as it roves like a gopher beneath the blankets.
Like so many people sheltering at home during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I’m paying more attention to my cat than ever. With no commute and no socializing outside the home, our relationship with our pets suddenly has extra emphasis. And since we can’t ask how they’re feeling, this new scrutiny can’t help but generate questions. Am I disrupting my cat’s life by being around and by pestering him all the time? Is he sick of my attention or annoyed with me? What was his life like before this? Did he like it?
These questions and more have blossomed on social media, most often in photos, memes and other expressions where people describe their pet’s annoyance—jokingly, usually. But there’s real anxiety underlying the memes.
“Part of the problem is that people may not know what their pets do during the day, so we tend to see this from a human-centered perspective,” research scientist Dr. Karen Overall, an associate professor at the University of Prince Edward Island and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, told Newsweek in a telephone interview. “Especially when we buy into some of the myths about cats not being really social, or ‘We have dogs, but cats have us’ type of stuff.”
But while our cats and dogs aren’t going to tell us what’s up, Overall’s area of research is beginning to find answers to some of our more conjectural concerns. Since 1995, when the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) gave its first certifying exam, animal behaviors has been a recognized specialization in veterinary medicine. A relatively new field, veterinary behavioral medicine now stands alongside oncology, surgery, pathology and other specialized fields of research and treatment, similar to the comparatively late arrival of psychiatry in the advancement of human medical treatment.
Overall and another board certified behaviorist, Debra Horwitz, a doctor of veterinary medicine and editor of the ACVB guide Decoding Your Dog (and the upcoming Decoding Your Cat), confirmed that the behavior changes you may be observing in your cat are not in your imagination. Just like a person, cats have routines and may react negatively to that routine’s disruption. So while your cat likely isn’t annoyed with you, there’s good reason to reevaluate your relationship with your pet in light of your new shelter-in-place pandemic routine.
“Change is only a good idea if it’s your idea. Nobody likes change unless it’s their idea,” Horwitz told Newsweek in a phone interview, shortly before her own cats approached, with the clear intent “to do something dastardly.”
But even with change thrust upon them, there’s a lot you can do to deepen your relationship with your cat or dog during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
Observe and Respect
The particular conditions of sheltering in place are uniquely stressful to us, which can lead us to lean on our pets in ways that prioritize our comfort over theirs, such as repeatedly picking up our cat. So the first priority in building a better relationship with your cat while you’re stuck together is to observe their reactions.
“Most dogs or cats are living a better version of their life, especially if we are adding a reasonable amount of walks, some playtime and some interesting toys and social interactions. But we can overdo it,” Horwitz said. “They’re individuals and they won’t necessarily do all the things that you want them to do. Look at their reactions.”
This means more than just subjective, human-inflected judgments of how happy or annoyed your cat is with you. Instead, this can be an opportunity to learn about your cat’s regular behaviors, habits and routines. While you may be paying a lot more attention to your cat, perhaps picking them up repeatedly or taking endless photos, not all attention will be equally appreciated.
“Look at what you expect your cat’s routine was when you were gone and how you have disrupted that routine,” Horwitz said. “Do they need a new bed to sleep in during the day? Maybe they slept on your desk, and now you’re working on it.”
A lot of our understanding about the “natural” behaviors of domesticated cats comes from researching the cats most dissimilar from the lives of house cats, specifically feral, or unowned, cats. From them, we have significant data about the patterns cats would choose absent an intrusive owner. Unowned cats have activity cycles, and cycles within cycles, including daily and seasonal activities.
This is less true for your pet roommate, whose lifestyle cycles are more determined by your presence or absence, but it does mean that respecting your cat’s living patterns can go a long way in securing their happiness.
“Cats like certain structures,” Overall said. “They like certain textures of food and certain textures of litter boxes and when they go to scratch things, individual cats have individual scratching preferences.”
This also means cats respond well to a schedule and consistency. Horwitz suggests setting up discrete play times, rather than pestering your cat with toys in the middle of a nap. Chances are, there’s a certain time of day when they’ll be more responsive to your attention. But Horwitz also emphasized that attention is always preferable to neglect, which brings us to the importance of providing your cat with physical and mental stimulation now that you’re spending more time together.
“They get no high-level, high-impact exercise,” Overall said. “We basically bore the hell out of our pet cats.”
How To Engage Your Cat
While there are many gaps in our knowledge of the ancestors of domestic cats, some evidence points to family groups and other social bonds similar to modern day lions. The African wildcat Felis lybica—believed to be the closest ancestor of domesticated cats—lives in colonies organized around cooperatively nursing and raising young. Unowned domestic cats exhibit the same behaviors, which is disrupted in a human household. Therefore, the easiest way to connect socially with your cat is to recreate some of the more central behaviors cats share among themselves.
“We seldom ask who the dog or cat prefers, but studies have shown dogs prefer the person who takes them for walks and cats prefer people who feed them and give the attention and groom them,” Overall said, noting that data for cat behavioral outcomes continues to be weaker, and under explored compared to dogs.
“Many cats love to be groomed and many cats are under-groomed,” Overall said.
While humans have largely forsaken grooming each other, for many mammals—cats included—it’s a key part of what Overall describes as “affiliative” socializing, or social contacts that build an ongoing rapport and have enduring value.
Affiliative behaviors between cats include leaning against each other and wrapping their tails around each other. Similar behaviors between cats and humans can be more subtle, but remain a good benchmark to look out for when gauging how satisfied your cat is with their relationship with you. While affiliative relations can be nurtured by quiet time together, or leaving your cat alone when they curl up for a nap at your side, active grooming is an often neglected way to deepen those bonds.
“Cats show a different suite of behaviors when they’re groomed,” Overall said. “They are more quiet when they’re groomed and they lean into the brush and they roll around. They have a different physiological and emotional response to grooming then to either quiet association or feeding.”
While brushing or otherwise grooming your cat (Jackson loves lint rollers) can help deepen a relationship, your cat will also appreciate tools that will help them groom themselves. Self groomers that attach to corners are particularly useful, especially if your cat is marking or scratch inappropriately.
Hunting for Food
“Many cat owners fill up a bowl with food and leave for the day, letting their cat feed at their leisure, but it’s far from how cats prefer to eat,” Horwitz said. “One of the biggest positive interventions you can make in your cat’s life while spending time at home with them is changing the way they’re fed.”
Cats prefer hunting for food, rather than having it passively present. Stimulating cat feeders, or “puzzle feeders,” are popular options that can provide your cat the sensation of hunting for their own food. But you don’t need products to encourage more active feeding: an old egg cartoon filled with kibble can act as a puzzle box for your cat, encouraging them to not only seek out food, but also to paw it up out of the divots.
You can adjust your cats eating habits, without completely overturning your cat’s feeding routine, by starting with less food in the bowl in the morning. Research has shown that cats respond to less food with increased interactivity—they’re going to pester you. Now, when your cat seeks out its source of food (you), there’s an opportunity to offer the remaining food in smaller doses throughout the day, using more engaging methods to encourage hunting and foraging. You may feel like you’re withholding or depriving your cat, but it will ultimately increase their satisfaction and deepen your relationship.
Toys, Training and Consistency
Many people may be tempted to pick up cat toys, but if your cat’s a little older and not accustomed to playing with toys, they’re unlikely to pick up the habit. But while people are admonished for playing with their food, feeding and play are more entangled concepts for your cat. Use snacks or food to have them follow you, or explore hard-to-reach spots, or as incentives for other forms of exercise.
If you want to get really involved in your cat’s life, then training is an option that will stimulate your cat and give them more clear parameters for interacting with their primate roomie.
For those who are really dedicated, clicker training is an option, but there’s no need to teach your cat stunts. What’s really important is consistency. One easy and popular way to train your cat is to set up a bell on a cupboard or other place that’s accessible to them, then reward them with a treat when the bell is rung. But there’s a downside: you need to be consistent! That means getting up every time, rather than sending mixed signals about what you want from your relationship with your cat.
“Cats will rise to any standard you set them,” Overall said. But that also means rising to those standards yourself.
Getting a New Cat
You’ve likely seen stories of empty shelters as people scoop up new pets now that they have more time at home during the coronavirus lockdown.
“I think that’s great, but they need to think ahead,” Horwitz said. “Just as they need to look backward to when they weren’t home all the time, what will their life be like when they go back to work?”
Rather than observing and respecting your existing pet’s habits, a new cat in the house can benefit from a routine that will help soften the blow of your eventual absence. Horwitz suggests setting aside a few hours during the workday as a “quiet time.” Rather than picking them and cuddling them throughout the day, let them get used to a little distance during work hours, so they can establish their own activities, independent of you.
Reconsidering Animal Welfare
Since shelter at home isolation has many people realizing and commenting on aspects of their cat’s behavior they may not have previously noticed, it’s also an opportune time to broaden how we consider our overall relationship with pets. While behaviorist research is learning more about our pets’ internal states, as a society we continue to value pets mostly only so far as it benefits us.
“We know a lot about cat brain waves, because they’re used for models of human epilepsy, but we don’t know a lot about them,” Overall said. “It’s been a use function. It wasn’t until pretty recently that people turned around and said, ‘Well, what does that mean for the cat and dog and how does it operate in their minds?'”
The scrutiny and attention we are giving our cats and dogs during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic shouldn’t end when shelter-in-place orders end. Instead, it should be a wake-up call to acknowledging their mental wellbeing more broadly, including when it comes to animal welfare laws. Despite their central role in our own emotional lives, we rarely take collective action on behalf of their interior states.
“I think this may be exposing a welfare concern for pet cats,” Overall said. “The group of animals left out of most of the animal welfare laws—and certainly outside of most people’s horizon of concern—is pet dogs and cats.”
Maybe your cat may be glowering at you all day as you work from home, or maybe your dog is worn out from the too-frequent walks you take for your own wellbeing. But there’s rarely been a better opportunity to close the gap between you and a being completely unlike you. All it takes is learning to understand them on their own terms. Just don’t let those lessons be forgotten when the bars open back up.
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