Human-Feline Relationships: Cats as Babies

You don’t need to listen to people talk about cats for very long to realize that something about the species elicits the full range of human emotions even among the most ardent cat lovers. Consider what goes through Mary Stewart’s mind late one night when she discovers that her beloved Persian, Hairy, has repeatedly sprayed the door of her new home. Part of her wants to carry her “furry little boy” to his satin pillow at the foot of her bed as usual, while another wants to whack him soundly on his furry behind for fouling her property. To understand how and why this happens, this month we’ll begin looking at how people and cats relate to each other and how this may affect the cat’s health and behavior, and the human-feline bond.

“But I’ll always love Hairy, no matter how angry he makes me!” insists Mary, guiltily putting down her rolled up newspaper and squirt gun.

While that may be true, we know from studies of the human-animal bond that Mary’s and Hairy’s feelings about each other may effect a whole range of physiological parameters from heart and pulse rate, to cholesterol and triglyceride levels, to the immune response. Although this may strike us as quite amazing, in fact Ivan Pavlov–of bell-ringing, drooling-dog fame–discovered this many years ago and called it the Effect of Person.

Consequently pet owners experiencing medical and/or behavioral problems with their pets as well as any people involved with the animal must get a grip on themselves first. Otherwise they’ll need to contend with all the negative effects of their own feelings on the animal in addition to whatever medical or behavioral problem the animal has.

In general people relate to cats in one of three ways. Sometimes we adopt an anthropomorphic view and see our pets as fur-covered babies. Other times we opt for the chattel view and treat our cats like animate objects. When we assume the third orientation, we take an integrated view that incorporates any time, financial, emotional, or physical limits we may have into the relationship.

Love Me, Love My Cat

Most likely as a result of the cat’s inherent maternal/sexual nature, many people find it very easy to relate to cats as furry little humanoids, usually as somewhat mentally impaired babies.

“Ooooh, Mummy wuvs her wittle pussy cat!” Mary gushes to Hairy as she ties a bow around his neck.

Although many people consider relating to an animal like a human the highest tribute we can pay them, in fact it represents the easy way out. When she treats Hairy as her baby, Mary completely ignores all of his unique feline qualities. She feeds him from her own plate rather than that “yucky stuff in the can,” unmindful that even her most elegant meal might not fulfill his unique nutritional requirements. She accuses him of being spiteful, mean, or stupid for spraying the door because she knows nothing about normal cat behavior and this is how she would respond to a person who did the same thing… Minus the rolled up newspaper and squirt bottle, but no never knows.

However Mary’s choice to evaluate her pet in human terms makes the problem worse rather than better for Hairy. Now he must add the stress of what he might very well consider her spiteful, mean, or stupid response to that caused by the terrifying sound of the neighbor’s motorcycle that compelled him to spray in the first place. And that can set him up for medical problems, too.

Suppose in addition to the stress of his new environment Mary’s response causes Hairy to experience a flare-up of his “nervous gut,” and he adds diarrhea to his spraying. Now Mary’s in a real bind. Unlike his spraying which she perceives as spiteful, she perceives his diarrhea as something over which he has no control. Because of this, she would never whap him with her rolled up newspaper or zap him with her water pistol at such times, even when he has diarrhea on her new brand wall-to-wall carpeting.

“That would be like kicking someone when they’re down,” she asserts with certainty. “That’s inhumane!”

Although many aspects of her anthropomorphic orientation spell trouble for her pet, Mary’s tendency to respond more fearfully to behavioral than medical problems looms like a particularly dark cloud on the horizon of their relationship. This occurs for two reasons:

  1. Mary doesn’t know that much about human “mental” compared to “physical” problems.
  2. Even if she did, normal feline behaviors are often so different from human ones, applying the human standard to cats is iffy at best.

Needless to say, this lack of knowledge leads to some rather erratic owner responses. When Hairy sprays the door, Mary feels betrayed because she’d never do such a horrible thing. Besides, she tells herself, he knows how much she loves new home. But when he succumbs to a stress-related diarrhea the day after she chases him around the house screaming like a maniac, she babies him more than ever because, after all, she experiences diarrhea on occasion and knows how miserable she feels under those circumstances.

The result of Mary projecting her beliefs and feelings on her cat is a total breakdown in human -feline communication. Mary blames Hairy’s spraying on his spitefulness and his diarrhea on “some virus.” The fact that the spraying and the diarrhea are both effects of the same cause–his fear–never crosses her mind. And because it never crosses her mind, the chance of her helping him by eliminating it doesn’t cross her mind either.

I use Mary and Hairy moving into their new home as an extreme example, but in reality we all treat our cats anthropomorphically from time to time. The challenge is to determine whether that approach is detrimental to our pet’s health, behavior, and the quality of our psycho-biological bond, preferably before we treat our pets this way, but at least before it causes problems.

“So how do I know if something that seems so right and natural to me might negatively affect Hairy’s health, behavior, or our relationship?” Mary shakes her head in bewilderment.

One good way is to keep track of how you interact with your cat for a week and jot down which, if any, of your responses are based on your own feelings about what you would do or feel in that situation and put an A (for anthropomorphic) after them. Then review your list again and determine whether your behavior results from your emotions (E) or solid knowledge (K) of normal feline physical and behavioral needs. If your list sports a lot more Es than Ks, it’s time to beef up your feline knowledge.

As we’ll discover time and time again, the problem isn’t how we relate to our cats, but whether solid knowledge of their needs as well as our own guides us.