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How stress afftects the health and happiness of cats

©Yannis Zikos©Yannis Zikos

Compared to the behaviour of pet dogs, cat behaviour seems to present a perpetual puzzle. My guess is that humans will forever try to get inside the heads of their feline companions to learn what lies behind those gorgeous, mysterious eyes. What is she thinking about? What’s she about to do? Is she staring at me, or through me? Does she love me, or loathe me?

Recently, John Bradshaw of the University of Bristol in the U.K., a recognised expert on the behaviour of domestic cats and dogs, published a new book called Cat Sense. In it, he expresses the belief that while kitties have learned to live with and appreciate humans, they still don’t get us the way dogs do, and they probably never will.

How John Bradshaw evaluates cat behaviour

In a recent interview with National Geographic, Bradshaw explained some of the conclusions he has drawn about pet cat behaviour.

It was back in the early 1980s that Bradshaw became fascinated with cats and began studying their view of the world as it compared to the human view. He watched the behaviour of cats living in groups to see how they interact with one another and how their social structure is designed. He watched felines in feral colonies and animal shelters and observed the dynamics among the group when new cats show up on the scene.

Bradshaw has studied the way cats interact with toys, their behaviour at different times of day, and their relationships with their owners. He has also evaluated how owners perceive their kitties.

There’s no evidence that cats view humans as a different species

Current research has concluded that dogs are very aware that we (humans) are not the same species they are. Their behaviour changes in the presence of humans. For example, dogs play with people very differently than they play with other dogs.

But when it comes to our kitty companions, there’s not much evidence to suggest they understand we’re different from them. They know we’re bigger, louder, and clumsier, but unlike dogs, they do not appear to adapt their social behaviour in the presence of humans. Feline body language around their owners, for example, rubbing against us, grooming us, and “head bunting,” are the very same behaviours cats act out with each other.

The good news is our cats seem to view us as equals, since they aren’t known to rub on other cats they feel are inferior to them!

How stress affects the health and happiness of kitties

One thing that surprised Bradshaw in his research was that as a general rule, cat owners have no idea just how stressed their pet might be, or how stress affects the health and quality of life of domestic cats. Much of this stress can be found in multi-cat households with kitties that don’t get along. Bradshaw points out that one of the most frequent reasons for feline vet visits is an injury inflicted during a cat fight.

Bradshaw also believes that the rapidly increasing number of cases of feline dermatitis and cystitis (inflammation of the bladder) are exacerbated by psychological stress. Cystitis has actually been linked to stress hormones in the blood. And he proposes that we evaluate a cat’s social lifestyle rather than pumping the animal full of drugs. Music to my ears!

©Yannis Zikos©Yannis Zikos

Cats are smart. They know how to get what they want!

According to Bradshaw, cats learn how to get what they want from certain human family members. For example, a kitty may learn that a particular type of meow will bring his owner running from wherever he or she is in the house. He might also know which is the best bedroom to visit at the crack of dawn if he’s especially hungry for breakfast.

Cats are also trainable to some extent. They can learn what behaviours annoy their owners. (This is no guarantee, however, that they will stop performing those behaviours!)

What Bradshaw would most like owners to understand about their pets is that cats are sociable to a point, but not in the way dogs are. Also, many people don’t think twice about adding another cat to the household, but their current kitty won’t be as laid back about the situation as they are. It’s important to plan ahead and perhaps foster a cat first, to see how the two get along. If it works out, that’s wonderful. If the cats don’t mesh well, it’s important to realise that your current kitty will be much happier and healthier as an only cat.

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