“Again I must remind you that a dog’s a dog, and a cat’s a cat”
This is one of my favourite quotes, mostly because of its relevance to what I do.
In my job as a cat behaviourist, I see a wide spectrum of cat owners. From the ‘complete obsessives’, to the ‘begrudging/resentful’.
Most of the time, the person who actually contacts me is someone who really cares for their cat. By the time they’ve contacted me, it’s usually because they’ve tried everything to solve their issue, and still will not give up on their animal. These are the people I live to help.
Of course, I deal with the other side of the spectrum (begrudging/resentful) at times as well. I actually find myself spending more individual time on these cases, trying to convince the owners of their cat’s needs and the fact that they will need to spend time, effort and money to keep their cat happy.
And very often, I get a combination. The person who contacts me is usually a cat person, but their spouse has far less tolerance, especially when it comes to cat furniture, litter boxes and financial expenditure.
Somewhere along the spectrum, are what I call, the ‘cats-are-small-dogs’ people. They are relatively common, and have often grown up in a household with dogs, but may have had an indoor/outdoor cat or few. And the cats probably had no real behaviour issues because they were mostly outside (less need for indoor enrichment etc).
These are the people that are difficult to convince of cats’ real needs, because their own conditioning has been such that their cats didn’t need any special attention, and just simply co-existed with the other members of the household (animals and humans). They can’t understand why their indoor cat isn’t behaving as expected.
I guess today’s article is a little bit of a vent. A ‘stream of consciousness’ writing to help get my thoughts on paper about this frustrating issue.
Please permit me go through some of my thoughts and reasonings on the subject of ‘cats are not small dogs’.
Dogs have been bred for thousands of years to serve humans. Today’s companion dogs still serve in a companion capacity. But for much of our relationship history, it appears that dogs were alongside us in a working capacity. Basically, we trained and bred them for our advantage.
Cats, on the other hand, appeared to ‘domesticate’ themselves. Depending on what source you read, the most accepted story is that once we began storing grains, cats appeared. The grains attracted rodents, and the rodents attracted the cats. It was a mutually beneficial relationship, so we let them live alongside us (or was it the other way around!?).
It was only in the 1950’s when cat litter was ‘invented’, and we began to bring them inside with us.
From an evolutionary standpoint, cats are very much still wild animals. Apparently, there are very few (though there are some) measurable genetic adaptations attributed to domestication.
One of my favourite things to say to clients is that, ‘by default dogs are born loving their owners (a bit tongue in cheek but it gets the point across), whereas with cats, we have to earn that love’. It is what makes the cat-human relationship so rewarding, in my opinion, because it is a relationship that was nurtured and worked for.
Cats have evolved to seek out the height advantage. Given that they are in the middle of the natural food chain, they instinctively gain confidence and safety from being up off the ground. Even though an indoor cat doesn’t have any issues with predators, they still have the genetic ‘switches’ that urge them to get up high.
Houses devoid of cat furniture or other high places are likely to be quite unenriching, and quite stressful for a purely indoor cat.
When I explain this to a ‘cat-is-a-small-dog’ person (usually a spouse), I often get the story (challenge) that they grew up without any cat furniture and their cat was fine.
I explain that firstly, they were indoor/outdoor cats and got a lot of enrichment from being outside (a lot of the time they had permanent access via a cat door), and secondly who’s to say they weren’t stressed?
I often have to explain that a purely indoor environment is a stressor for most cats, so we need to compromise if we are to keep them happy, healthy and fulfilled.
The proof is always in the pudding. Those that add enough vertical space will most often find themselves with a much, much happier cat.
This is probably the challenge I get most often (apart from increasing the number of litter boxes). Some owners can’t see the need for cat furniture, and can’t understand why they just can’t ‘exist’ in the house.
Dogs, on the other hand, tend to (not always) have a higher tolerance for a unenriching environment, as long as their owner is there. Their owner is the most important thing in their world, and will happily hang around.
As we know, cats have access to counters, benches and tables. Leaving highly rewarding food out on the counter is simply an invitation for a cat to jump up and eat it.
Like the previous point – dogs are ground animals, cats are not. If you leave food (especially meat) out in a spot that it accessible to a cat, you need to expect it to get eaten! Remember, they are still mostly wild animals.
I shouldn’t put all cats in this basket, but many cats simply just don’t like being picked up, pet and stroked, unless they’ve specifically asked for it.
Dogs on the other hand will (mostly) take any opportunity for affection from their owner! Their whole outlook on life is about being with their guardian. Affection, or any attention from them is a huge reward.
It’s amazing how much I see this – cats getting fed one meal a day (for meal-fed cats, not free-fed cats).
Cats are genetically designed for multiple small meals per day (studies show that in their natural environment, they will catch up to 12 small prey each day).
The vast majority of the time, as soon as guardians realise they aren’t feeding enough, they change their routine immediately. That’s great, I love it when people acknowledge and change for their animals. It’s the ones who refuse to accept it because it means more work for them, or because they don’t believe it (they’ve always fed their dogs once a day so why can’t they feed their cats like this?), that I find hard to deal with.
From a pure behavioural science perspective, punishment works. The very definition of punishment is something that makes it less likely for the behaviour to occur again. If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t be called punishment. However it’s going to ruin the bond between you and your cat.
I’m not a fan of using punishment on animals at all if possible. Especially not ‘added’ punishment’. Let me explain.
There are 2 types of punishment – added and subtracted. Added punishment is where you add something to the situation that is punishing. We normally see this as hitting and animal, spraying water etc. Any trainer worth their salt will stay far away from added punishment.
Subtracted punishment, on the other hand, is when you remove something from the situation. For instance, your attention, food etc. This is the only punishment that should even be considered. ‘Time out’ is a form of subtracted punishment, and is the furthest I would go on the punishment spectrum.
Neither dogs nor cats should be deliberately punished using ‘added’ punishment, but dogs have a much higher tolerance for it. Given their loyalty and default-love towards their owner, added punishment with a dog will probably disrupt the animal-human bond less than cats. Some fanatics might say it cements the human at the top of the pack (ugh).
Cats on the other hand, have very little tolerance for added punishment, especially if it involved pain (hitting). A guardian who hits or hurts their cat is far more likely to shatter a bond between them.
Remember, a cat’s love is more rewarding because you have to work for it. The flipside of that is that it’s much more easily broken. Never deliberately hurt or traumatise your cat, or it will be difficult to repair. A cat doesn’t see you as their master. They don’t love you by default. You need to work for and nurture that relationship for it to mean anything to them.
Dogs seem to better know the boundaries of rough play. Again, they’ve lived alongside humans for much longer, and have adapted.
Cats, on the other hand, are still wild, and rough play can trigger some delicate genetic switches and you might find that you have a temporarily dangerous animal on your hands. They often don’t know when to stop, and/or they continue to play rough with you at times that don’t suit you.
Thanks for letting me get that out! It’s a subject that has been swirling around in my head recently, that I felt I needed to get out in a constructive way.
I try not to hold anything against ‘cats-are-small-dogs’ people. Most viewpoints, opinions and beliefs are simply conditioned in to them. The frustration, I guess, is when there’s no ‘want’ to understand cats any better.
Remember, cats are unique animals with unique needs, especially indoor-only cats. Keeping them happy and healthy requires effort and understanding.
Here’s to happy and healthy cats!