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Are You a “Helicopter Parent” for Your Cats?

A recent study suggests cats do better if their people are conscientious and anxious, but to call that helicopter parenting is ridiculous.

JaneA Kelley  |  Feb 3rd 2015


Are affection and attention good for cats? Of course they are, but sometimes it seems like people are intent on shaming us — or at the very least, offering left-handed compliments — for caring.

"Helicopter parenting better for pets than for kids, study suggests," reads the clickbait title of a UC Berkeley news release about a recently published study by a Berkeley doctoral student and a psychologist who mentored him.

What is helicopter parenting, according to this study? It’s all about conscientiousness and "neuroticism," by which the authors mean anxious attachment and a need for reassurance from the objects of their affection. Apparently cat owners tend to score high in personality traits indicating that need for reassurance.

I guess the joke’s on us, because if we cat caretakers need reassurance from our cats, we’re, um, barking up the wrong tree.

Cats are well known for seeking affection and love on their own terms. They don’t live to please us, although oftentimes they do just by their existence in our lives. If we’re reassured by our cats’ presence, it’s not because we’ve turned them into shadows of themselves but because they have chosen to seek our company.

Here’s another thing: So-called helicopter parents are more than just conscientious and anxious; they are so extreme in these characteristics that they don’t allow their kids the independence they need to grow and so obsessed with their kids’ performance that they don’t have the time or energy to care about their emotional needs. "They’re parents who are physically hyper-present but somehow psychologically M.I.A.," as Judith Warner wrote in a New York Times book review.

Good luck being psychologically absent if you have a cat. Trust me, I’ve been psychologically absent many times in my life — depression will do that to you — but my cats refused to let me "check out" fully.

Not only that, but I’ve never met a cat who would put up with not being allowed to behave like a cat. Even if you keep your cats indoors only, which some might (wrongly, in my opinion) view as a form of helicopter parenting, you’re not going to be able to stop them from climbing, scratching, chasing toys, hunting for food (even if that hunting only takes the form of scouring the counters for leftover morsels of your breakfast), burying their waste, and sleeping in sun puddles.

It’s not like we’re calling our cats every morning to wake them up for their college classes or fighting with their teachers over their grades ("Damn it, Mrs. Smith, you know little Snotley should have gotten an A and not an A- on that history test!") or demanding that they get a gold star just for showing up at dance class.

Honestly, as cat caretakers we have to be highly conscientious and emotionally and intuitively aware of our cats. Our furry friends are instinctively driven to hide pain and illness, so it’s up to us to be aware of the subtle signs that something’s not quite right. We have to know how much our cats eat, drink, urinate, and defecate so we can tell if their intake and output is abnormal.

Our cats can’t tell us, "Hey Mom, my stomach hurts. Maybe it has something to do with that lily I ate a little while ago" or "Hey Mom, I’ve been peeing an awful lot lately and I’m thirsty all the time! I think something might be wrong with me," so it’s up to us to be able to figure that stuff out.

This isn’t helicopter parenting. It’s responsible pet ownership. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

What do you think? Are you a helicopter pet parent? Do you think the term helicopter parent even applies when it comes to pets? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.