While cats enjoy new toys and treats any time, they don’t understand of the concept of the holiday season. While it can be a fun, exciting time of celebration for humans, it can be a stressful, overstimulating time for cats.
The holiday season stretches from Halloween to Thanksgiving, Hanukkah to Christmas and ends after New Year’s Day. More than 80 percent of pets will receive holiday gifts this year. That said, the greatest gift we can give our cats doesn’t cost a dime. It’s the gift of awareness, and it results in continuing purrs of thanks from our cats. Awareness is the sister of responsibility and compassion. The end result is a deepening of the feline-human bond, which is priceless.
You can cultivate the gift of awareness through a cat’s six senses. Cats’ senses are more developed than ours making it easy overstimulate a cat. Overwhelmed cats will react with a flight-or-flight response. They will hiss, bite or scratch, or run away and hide. Despite living with humans for more than 9,000 years, cats are not fully domesticated, as recent genome research proves. All cats’ senses are designed for hunting prey and survival in a world of invisible boundaries and territories (more so in multicat or multipet homes) that we aren’t privy to.
Here are tips to strengthen the bond with your cats through the senses.
Cats’ eyes see a wide degree and range of the light spectrum up to ultraviolet. Their vision is enhanced in low light to take advantage of ideal hunting times: dawn and dusk.
Be aware of light this holiday season. Flickering candles, flashing Christmas lights, or LED lights may overstimulate. Be careful if using laser “red dot” types of toys, and never shine them in a cat’s eyes.
A cat’s hearing far exceeds a human’s into the ultrasonic range, again to help locate prey. Not only do cats hear what we can’t, their “satellite” ears rotate to pinpoint, funnel, and amplify sounds with precision.
What we may consider the sounds of holiday cheer and merriment — loud parties and music — are likely to trigger a different response from cats, causing them to play hide-and-not-seek. If you’re entertaining, make sure they have a safe, quiet zone or hideaway. Closets, especially a linen closet or a folded blanket under a bed, provide well-insulated sanctuaries. There is also instrumental music acoustically designed to calm cats, some available on CD collections.
Cats’ sense of smell is perhaps their finest sense. Cats have about 200 million olfactory receptor cells compared with humans’ 5 million. A large part of cats’ communication with their world is via scent molecules called pheromones that they naturally produce and secrete from various parts of their face and tail. It’s how the mark their territory, which includes us, other pets, furniture, stairs, door jambs, and other places in the home or its surroundings.
During the holiday season there is a cornucopia of new scents, natural as well as synthetic, from holiday baking, mulled wine, scented candles, Christmas trees, wood fires, and holiday decorations, not to mention more that visitors bring through their own scents and chemical fragrances. We may think our homes smell festive but it may be scent overload to a cat.
Be aware of scent excess. There are safe, scent-free synthetic pheromone products (sprays, plug-ins, or collars) that are calming and help cats feel safe. They mimic the F-3 facial pheromones cats naturally produce from scent glands in their cheeks to mark their territory and feel good.
Taste is the weakest sense among cats. They have about 500 taste buds to humans’ 10,000, and cats can’t detect sweetness. It’s why cats rely on their sense of smell and always sniff their food first. They prefer food at room temperature, ideally 86 degrees, the temperature of their tongue.
The holiday season is time to indulge, but avoid giving human food to cats. Cats can’t detect sweet. Alcohol, antifreeze, and the liquid from snow globes are among things toxic to cats. A stressed cat is more likely to develop pica, a behavior of ingesting nonfood material such as plastic bags, or chewing on electrical cords.
Cats are naturally tactile and responsive to touch. Most cats revel in chin rubs and petting but within reason. Many parts of cats’ bodies are sensitive, including delicate paw pads, nose, ears, and belly, as well as their 24 whiskers. All this helps cats navigate their world. Even a cat who adores being petted and snuggled can become overstimulated during the holiday melee, and a purr can turn into a protest nip. Always respect a cat’s limits and watch for body language signs of annoyance such as a swishing tail, sudden muscular tension, a warning hiss, or a light swat. Tell visitors, especially young children, to allow the cat to approach them first rather than the other way around.
Cats have a reputation and mystique for being mysterious. Part of their appeal is their uncanny ability to read humans. Most cat lovers have stories of cats coming to their aid, offering comfort when ill, waiting by the door, or behavior bordering on intuitive. Cats have a way of mirroring the emotions of those who share their lives. Science has shown the healing benefits of petting and keeping cats, but what about the benefits to cats?
The holiday season can be intense, exhausting, and stressful. Cats can help reduce our stress, but an overstimulated cat may also respond with unwanted behavior. Even if a cat appears unperturbed, the cat might be internalizing the stress. A stressed cat may have litter box issues, display inter-cat aggression, be more clingy, or be more inclined to hide.
Be aware. Use all of your senses including common sense. While getting your home ready for entertaining or house guests, consider what decorations might be hazardous, such as tinsel and ribbon. If traveling, make arrangements well in advance for a reliable or professional cat sitter.
Imagine what your cat would experience from the cat’s eye view. Do a floor-to-ceiling, room-to-room survey. If moving furniture around, are there still places for a cat to hide, perch, climb, nap, and play? Are the litter boxes in safe, easily accessible locations with exit routes? Are the food and water bowls in places where they won’t be knocked over during a party?
Cats give us so much to be grateful for every day. They are beloved companions, nonjudgmental friends, furry foot and lap warmers, and sources of endless entertainment and wonder. This year in the collective spirit of joy and generosity, let’s give cats the gift of compassion, acceptance, gratitude, and respect. Those gifts are all free.
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About the author: Layla Morgan Wilde is a holistic cat behaviorist, an award-winning writer/photographer and founder of the premier online magazine Cat Wisdom 101. A passionate advocate for cats, she founded the Toronto-based Annex Cat Rescue in 1997. In addition to her blogging at Cat Wisdom 101, she blogs at Boomer Muse and contributes to Petfinder.com and Nordic Spotlight. Wilde is a professional member of the Cat Writers’ Association. She lives in Westchester County, NY, with four cats.