One of the first questions I get when people find out I’m a veterinarian is “are you a cat person or a dog person?” This is a difficult question to answer as it probably depends on the particular cat or dog. They all have their quirks and personalities but in general, if they make people feel good and form a mutually beneficial bond then that is what is most important. I thought it would be interesting to see what others thought. When people were asked if they were happy with their pets in a recent nationwide survey 39% of dog owners responded affirmatively yet only 18% of cat companions were satisfied with their relationship with their pets. That a majority of cat companions may not be happy with their cats is disheartening for me because I specialize in improving people’s relationships with their pets, I find the human-animal bond is one of the most important parts of animal care that veterinary medicine often does not really address.
So, how do we fix the problem with people and their cats?
First, we need to understand the reasons for people being unhappy with their cats. Unacceptable behavior is the biggest reason! Some of the most common behavioral complaints about cats are: Scratching furniture, not getting along with other pets (or people) in the household, and soiling outside the litterbox are some of the most common behavioral problems reported. Whenever a cat presents with a behavioral issue, possible medical causes like pain, urinary tract infections, or neurological problems must be ruled out by a veterinarian and treated appropriately if found. Of course, this is time-consuming, can be expensive, and for many cats and parents very traumatizing. Cats generally do not like to be held down and given a pill or be forced to drink a bitter-tasting liquid. However, if a curable condition is found, the problem may be resolved fairly quickly with appropriate treatment. Unfortunately, true behavioral problems are not as easy to fix.
Second, we need to find out why people have a difficult time correcting their cat’s behavior.
Sometimes the root of the behavioral problem is people’s misperception of cats. Some people choose cats because they are “Low Maintenance” or they are away from home a lot they think that cats can be alone for longer periods of time than dogs, cats are perceived to be loners and aloof. This is not actually the case. Cats get a bad reputation for being lazy and sleeping all the time. While the term Cat Nap is justly deserved, cats are known to sleep 12 hours a day, the truth is cats are not just couch ornaments. When socialized with humans early in development around 4-7 weeks cats crave human interaction and this plus an interest in rewards such as food or physical affection, they can learn to do amazing things. While you must be careful when making connections between the Himalayan, pure white, long-haired, 8 lb., smoosh nosed cat and a lion, cats are actually very social creatures, each performing different roles within a pride.
Cats are energetic, playful, and intelligent, and have all kinds of purrsonalities. They need plenty of enrichment and interaction. When left alone too long parents may come home from a trip to find that fluffy has peed all over their clean laundry pile or their pillow over a perfectly clean conveniently located litter box. Sometimes people tell me they think their cat is spiteful or angry with them for going on a trip. This thinking can really harm a relationship. While it may seem cats are angry with parents a complex emotion like spite is probably beyond cats, they are most likely just stressed by a parent’s absence or bored. On the other hand, when humans are around too much their sometimes-erratic behavior as seen by their cats can also cause problems. They need a place in a home where they can get away from it all when necessary.
Even if it is just to climb up to a perch where they can observe things from a distance. We have seen a lot of behavior problems since the pandemic has forced people to spend a lot more time home with their cats. Cats can be easily stressed by things that caregivers can not even perceive and this too can cause them to misbehave. Cats may seem a bit more mysterious than dogs, but with a little bit of time, effort, and understanding, sometimes with the help of a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist, we can make our cats’ lives and our lives with cats better at the same time.
If you would like to learn more about the natural behaviors of domestic felines there is a great book co-authored by a local veterinary behaviorist called “Decoding your Cat” By Dr. Amy Pike of The Animal Behavioral Wellness Center in Fairfax.
Dr. Paula Clark is a small animal veterinary clinician with 25 years of experience in small animal medicine, she has been practicing in the Northern Virginia area for the past 12 years. She is a graduate of the top-rated North Carolina State University Veterinary School and specializes in improving the quality of life for cats and dogs by providing Integrative pain management, nutrition, exercise, and behavioral advice.
Instagram @pauladvm.pet.life.coach and on you tube @ integrative veterinary consultants