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What makes a cat act like a cat

As many of us know, cats act differently than dogs do.  While this is obvious, often people expect their cat co operate, or respond to training like a dog.  This often back fires with cats - because they have different needs and motivations compared to dogs or other species ( like humans).

Most innate, natural behavior comes from the wild behaviors that helped this animal survive in the wild.  There were many, many years of this wild life so the actions that would protect this animal  will be the actions that animal will choose when feeling threatened.  Even though your kitty does not look like a wild cat, the brain will default to that wild behavior when stressed.

First of all, cats are both the predator and the prey.  What this means is that at times they are the killers  and at other times they are being killed.  Cats prey upon animals that are smaller than them, not often larger animals.  So they are adapted to seeing and hearing the scurrying of mice, insects and other animals that are easy for them to pounce upon and quickly shake.  When a larger animal is threatening them, or there is a threat of a predator the cat needs to get out the area quickly or hide to avoid being eaten.   In the wild cats have a lot of opportunity to catch small animals for food so there is an abundance of opportunities to eat.  Eating out in the open will make them an easy target for the predator.  To protect themselves, cats want to eat in sheltered  areas or will leave the food when there is a threat.   There will always be another meal not far away.     This is very different from dogs and humans.  It takes a lot for us to leave our food!

Cats do not want to feel that they cannot escape.  If a cat feels like they are trapped, they will do whatever they can to escape.  Being trapped means being eaten.  So the more tightly a cat is held, the more they will struggle, scratch, and bite in order to get away.  Often the reason a cat is getting so agitated in the veterinary office is due to the handling the cat is receiving.   Restraining using a blanket or towel will often help a cat to feel that they are protected resulting in less struggling.  Distractions such as rubbing the head or sliding the body also help.  The most important thing to understand about cats is to avoid holding them tight, scruffing, or wrestling with them.  They will fight to the end because they perceive this is the end for them.  

What helps a cat feel good when being handled?  Minimal (close to zero) restraint. Rubbing the head between the ears or stroking stopping at the shoulders makes them feel good.  Allow the cat to rub it's face on the exam table, furniture in the room and you.  This is how a cat marks you and says you are ok.  A cat needs to know what is familiar to feel less upset.    Feliway is helpful to calm a cat.  The pheromone product "premarks" object or people to help the cat feel like they have already greeted you.  This tends to reduce agitation during handling also.

So for cats - keep it cool.  No heavy handling, loud noises or fast jerky movements.  Give the cat the feeling that they are not trapped and are "hidden" .  Treats should be offered but don't feel bad if they are not eaten.  It takes a pretty relaxed or motivated cat to take a treat.  When they do, it really helps that cat co operate with you much better.  Give them time and understand what the cat needs.

Sally J Foote, DVM  CFBC-IAABC
Okaw Veterinary Clinic Tuscola IL
drsally@drsallyjfoote.com

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