First CatWatch Day findings show even devoted owners may miss signs of stress
Cats adjust their behaviour to communicate with humans, but few of us understand their efforts. Findings from the UK’s first CatWatch Day showed that cats were not ‘aloof’ but instead had a daily routine of activity with a repertoire of behaviours designed to maximise interaction with their owners. However, most of this is largely misunderstood according to Jon Bowen, animal behaviour consultant at Royal Veterinary College.
600 people participated in the study which involved observing their cat’s behaviour on 6th May 2013 and completing a quick online survey. Jon Bowen analysed the results:
“Cats try to interact with their owners as they would with another cat. This communication is much more subtle than we are used to and is often missed by owners. For example, a common greeting between cats is to blink at each other and then sit close but not touching. When cats do the same with their owners it is a powerful sign of trust and friendship. However, owners often expect physical contact as part of a greeting, and see this as a time to pick a cat up or cuddle it. Alternatively they may misinterpret the cat’s behaviour as a request for food rather than a demonstration of friendship.
“People often ask why a cat will initially sit on their lap, ‘wanting attention’ and then will bite them. In this case, the cat wants contact, but being stroked is considered too much to tolerate. The cat will either fend the owner off when it has had enough, or turn the interaction into a play-fight. Both are likely to result in biting and scratching. Results from CatWatch day suggest that this misunderstanding is quite common.”
Jon says that most communication is non-vocal and may include making brief eye contact, rubbing against you, or just wanting to sit and watch you. However, it isn’t just owners that misread these signals. Jon continues:
“People who are nervous of cats often wonder why cats always come to greet them. Interestingly this is because these people make brief eye contact with the cat and then look away; they avoid staring and don’t directly approach the cat. From a cat’s perspective this is a perfect invitation to come up and greet the person.”
Cats are also vocal, and use the same range of purrs, trills and miaows to communicate with their owners as they do with other cats. However, they have shown an amazing ability to adapt their vocalisations to have a greater impact on people.
“Interestingly, a recent academic paper* reported that some cats adjust their miaow to mimic that of a human infant’s distress cry. The study found that humans are highly sensitive to this sound, making it very difficult for them to resist a cat’s demands.”
The CatWatch study looked at the activity patterns of cats and found cats engaged in a 40% greater range of activities between 6 and 8 in the morning, which is also when owners are at home. During the day there was a period of rest, before activity started again in the evening. This suggests that cats modify their activity patterns to accommodate their owners’ lifestyle.
Jon says “Interestingly owners did not rate their cats as more active at any time of day so there is a discrepancy between what owners think of as ‘activity’, and what cats actually do.
“When we use the word ‘activity’, we tend to mean physical activity such as going to the gym. However an active cat can be quietly seeking out opportunities rather than just running around. This shows us that while a cat may not be physically active in the morning and evening, it is likely to be much more receptive to offers of play and interaction at these times.”
The study also has some important implications for the way we monitor our cat’s health.
Cats that are sick often don’t show any symptoms until the illness has developed and is quite severe. However, Jon says “If you are tuned into your cat’s routine it will be easier to spot a change in frequency of feeding, greetings, play and amount of time spent outside. The sooner we see these changes, the sooner we can investigate the cause.”
Stress is a cause of many health conditions for example skin conditions such as hair loss and itchy skin. Stress can in turn cause changes in behaviour such as spraying in the house, guarding the cat flap, and watching other cats through a window.
Recent research by the recent Neighbourhood Cat Campaign** showed 23% of owners reported intruder cats entering their home through an unsecured cat flap and fighting with the resident cat. Cats are territorial so invasion of their home is a significant source of stress which is not appreciated by many cat owners.
Jon continues, “The results from CatWatch Day show that even devoted cat owners may miss the signs that their pet is under stress and so are not taking measures to prevent it. It is important to not encourage or feed other cats in your home, and not to put food where it can be seen from outside. A selective entry cat flap is also beneficial in helping a pet feel secure.”