Cat Talk|June 2020
We may have even posted a few memes and pictures ourselves. But, seriously, do we know if our cats adapting well to the new household routine? Are they thrilled that you’re home more, and simply being a bit of a pest while you try to work, or are they truly showing signs of stress because you are taking over their space? If they are showing signs of stress, this should be assessed and mitigated ASAP. Stress can lead to all kinds of medical issues in cats, including over or undereating, fighting, inappropriate elimination, and feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), including partial or complete obstructions in male cats.
Assessing Stress in Cats
Signs of stress can be very subtle. While many cats hide their feelings well from humans, the signs are there if you know what to look for. According to Trisha Seifried, owner and head animal trainer of Got Pet-initial Animal Talent and CatBoss.TV, there are five basic body-language signs that all cats exhibit when stressed or frightened. In her CatBossTV.com blog post for March 31, 2020, she lists them as follows:
1. Licking Lips: Watch a cat in a judging ring during a show who is obviously stressed, and most of the time you will also see it lick its lips, sometimes repeatedly. This does not necessarily mean that the owner has given it a treat before going to the ring. Licking lips can often be the first sign that the cat has noticed a situation that scares or stresses them. If you notice your cat licking its lips and you haven’t recently fed it, it’s important to quickly assess a potential stressor in the vicinity. Is someone vacuuming in the next room, are there people moving around the house in a different manner? Could the cat be aggravated with another pet in the house over access to a favorite perch or person? If you can identify what is bothering the cat before it behaves inappropriately, you can redirect it in a positive manner by addressing the stressor situation in some way or distracting the cat with a toy or treat. Praise it immediately and enthusiastically for behaving in an appropriate manner and not exhibiting undesirable behaviors such as running, rolling up in a ball, or scratching and biting. Your cat will learn that scary things mean treats and toys if it responds appropriately.
2. The Sigh: Have you ever been holding a fussy cat and noticed a sigh? Have you then noticed that the cat is fussing less after the sigh? Sighing is a healthy release of stress and a signal that the cat is dealing with an anxiety-producing situation in a positive manner. It is very similar to a human sigh. Think about it–you start to argue with a family member, then stop yourself–this is not the time and the place. You decide to pick your battles and drop the argument. As you walk away, what do you do? Do you find yourself sighing?
Sighing in both humans and cats is much the same thing– you’ve accepted an undesirable situation, and while you may not be completely okay with it, you deal with it in a positive manner and avoid negative behaviors. My cat never sighs, you might say. Can I train my cat to sigh? Absolutely, and the younger you start them, the better. Reward them when they sigh (unlike your mother, who probably yelled at you for sighing when you gave up arguing with her) and praise them. When doing an intervention after you notice your cat licking lips, a sigh is a good sign that your intervention is working. For more tips on how to train your cat to sigh and for more details on any of these communication signs, please read https://www. catbosstv.com/post/5-communication-signs-that-you-might-bemissing-in-your-cats-and-dogs.
3. The Shake: This often follows a yawn and looks just like a cat or dog shaking itself after a run through a puddle or a bath. The cat is literally shaking offstress and this is typically a very positive sign. This one is easy to spot, and while a positive response, you should still be sure you reward and praise the cat if possible. Also, pay close attention to why it may be shaking off stress. Is there something out of the ordinary going on that you didn’t notice? If so, you need to develop a plan to desensitize your cat to fear. More on that below.
4. The Yawn: While more common in dogs, cats yawn, too, as a response to stress or fear, and a yawn will often be followed by a shake. If you are at a show, or a photo shoot, or even training your cat at home, and you see these signs, you need to assess your cat’s current situation and take steps to mitigate what might be bothering them.
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