SHINGLES ISN’T MY condition; he’s my cat. I love him like crazy, but he gets under my skin.
I’m not alone as a conflicted cat fancier. Tony Buffington is a veterinarian at Ohio State University, and he recently told me many cat owners are constantly frustrated by their feline companions. Even though we feed them, clean up after them, and pet, hug, and hold them, Buffington says that few of us know how to listen to our cats. This can make things more frustrating for them than for us. That’s because no matter how much we love them, cats are our captives, domesticated aliens with no way of explaining their customs, or of interpreting ours.
Dr. Buffington (a great name for your next kitten, by the way) sat down with me to explain how to listen to cats. These aren’t just tricks to score more cuddle time, but ways to create a more harmonious home that could improve your cat’s health. For years, he’s been studying the root causes of interstitial cystitis, a painful and chronic inflammation of feline bladder tissue. His research indicates a stressful home environment may cause the condition, and perhaps other chronic cat diseases as well. He believes the best cure is learning to listen to your cat, giving him choices, and reducing the environmental factors that trigger his stress response.
You are a huge, unpredictable ape
You hear the unmistakable sound of claws on couch. You snap, shout, squirt water, and maybe even throw a pillow. It’s all futile, because eventually he’s at it again. Your cat isn’t ignoring you, Buffington says. He just doesn’t know how to connect your negative reinforcement with his behavior. This is because cats evolved as solitary hunters with little need for reading social cues, especially those for behavior modification.
“How the hell is your cat supposed to know that you’re yelling at him because you want him to stop scratching the couch?” Buffington says. Without the cognitive ability to connect your outburst to their scratching, cats see only chaotic aggression. “To the cat, you’re this crazy primate who is attacking him for no reason,” he says.
Instead of discouraging the act, you become an object of fear. What’s more, your cat becomes frustrated, and eventually stressed, because you constantly interrupt natural feline activities like raking his claws or jumping on something high. “Cats get sick when they want to express their natural behaviors and they can’t,” he said, and will continue to do the thing when you aren’t around.
“The way to train a cat is through their environment,” Buffington said. For example, put two-sided tape on the corner of your couch, or tinfoil on the kitchen counter. Then, put the now-more-attractive alternative nearby: A scratching post covered with catnip, or the awesome cat tree you built from scavenged driftwood. When your cat does the thing you want her do to, reward her with a treat, or affection. “You let the house provide the negative reinforcement, while you provide the positive reinforcement,” Buffington said.
Feline feng shui
In those few hours each day where he isn’t sleeping, your cat is a little bundle of energy that wants to move through your home as harmoniously as possible. But you’ve disrupted his flow by placing the food dish next to the refrigerator, the litter box by the dryer, and his favorite cardboard box alongside the sliding glass door leading to the yard.
You might be deaf to the fridge fan or the spin cycle. But Buffington says it sounds like a monster growling at them while they eat or poop. Put the dish and the litter box in quiet, calm places where kitty has an escape route if he feels threatened (i.e., not in a closet).
Sights also can be stressful. Cats are curious about other animals, but if there is no visual barrier between the dogs, cats, goats, horses, or alpacas outside, the cat will feel threatened. “Cats don’t understand glass, but they do understand height,” Buffington says. Give your cat access to high places, like a cat tree or bookshelf, where she can observe in peace.
Read Next Storie at Page Two