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How to Spare Your Cat From Human Fear and Anxiety

A new study shows our profound emotional impact on our cats; here's how you can help.

Susan Logan McCracken  |  Oct 7th 2015


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.

If you’re like me, you know the wonderful effect cats have on our lives. When we hear them purr and see them roll around on the floor, we’re also confident that we have a positive effect on their lives. Common sense might also tell us that our pets — and cats in particular — also pick up on our negative emotions. Researchers at the University of Milan, Italy, searched for proof.

Led by Dr. Isabella Merola from the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Science in the U.K., the study’s authors placed 24 cats and their favorite humans in a room with an unusual object: an electric fan affixed with plastic green ribbons. Those of us with cats know that such an object would probably cause anxiety in any feline.

At one end of the room stood a screen representing the cats’ only way out of the room, which also hid a video camera. After the cats explored the room, their humans were asked to either positively or negatively react to the fan, while alternately glancing back and forth between the fan and the cat. A positive reaction included a happy tone of voice, pleasant facial expressions, and a move toward the fan. A negative reaction included a fearful tone of voice, frightened facial expressions, and a move away from the fan.

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Electric fan by Shutterstock

The majority of the cats — 79 percent — showed signs of social referencing by looking between the fan and their favorite human. Often studied in human babies, social referencing means looking to a significant other to determine how to react in an unknown situation or to an unfamiliar stimulus. In other words, these cats were looking to their humans and asking themselves, “Should I be afraid of this?”

These cats also changed their behavior to match their humans’ emotional response. This groundbreaking study, “Social referencing and cat-human communication,” was published in the January 2015 issue of Animal Cognition.

“It was the strong relationship with Nemo and Chanel (my two cats) that gave me the idea to study the social referencing in this species,” Merola said. “The difference is that after this study, I’m more careful of my reaction in new situations (for example, in a new place or when there is a new object), because I know they are looking for my expression and that I could (at least in part) affect their behavior.”

Merola was surprised that even when their humans reacted positively to the fan, the cats still didn’t approach it.

“Later on, looking at the general reaction toward the fan, we understood that probably the object was too scary for cats to show this behavior,” she said.

Still, these cats were less anxious. Merola would like to do more social referencing studies between cats and their humans, but with less scary objects, because cats do look to their people to guide their own emotions and reactions.

Why we need to study cats

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A cat hides by Shutterstock

This study’s results might seem obvious to those of us who have lived with cats for a long time. So do we really need to invest in these studies?

“People who live with cats know better than to buy into the oversimplified stereotype of aloof and indifferent cats versus warm-hearted dogs,” said Barbara J. King, chancellor professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, who blogged about this study for National Public Radio when it came out. “But before this study, no one had specifically looked at how likely our cats are to seek clues from our faces and voices in unfamiliar situations.”

King, who has studied animal cognition and emotion since the 1980s and who has rescued many cats over the years, explained: “Some people insisted, ‘Oh we knew this already. Why is science always figuring out what animal people know?’ But, in fact, it’s so important to demonstrate under controlled conditions how acutely attuned animals are to their environment. It helps everyone, even those who don’t know (in this case) cats, grasp how they are thoughtful, feeling beings.”

And because they are thoughtful, feeling beings, they are subject to the same stressors we face.

The stress hormone

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An angry cat hisses by Shutterstock

Anyone who breathes, whether human or animal, experiences anxiety. Stressful situations trigger the adrenal gland to secrete the hormone cortisol, which enables us to react quickly and with extra energy in emergencies or life-threatening situations. In cats, cortisol prompts the fight-or-flight response, empowering them to either escape or fight back when threatened. Cortisol release helps living organisms survive, but when it’s released too much or too often, it can create physical, mental, and emotional health problems.

What we see as life-threatening and what our cats see as life-threatening are two very different things. Sometimes the boom of thunder, a loud dryer, or a barking dog can send cats needlessly into survival mode.

“A lot of things can cause stress and can escalate into a compulsion: separation anxiety, a new cat in the house, a separation or divorce, a new person in the house, grieving over a person or animal who is gone from the household, inter-cat issues, and outside animals,” said Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant.

Whenever you see a cat who is hiding, becoming clingy, grooming excessively, pulling her fur, vocalizing excessively, eliminating outside the litter box, or pacing, don’t assume it’s a behavioral problem, she said.

“Take the cat to the vet because there might be a medical component,” she said.

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Scared cat by Shutterstock

The over-release of cortisol compromises the immune system, making individuals prone to illness. Cats can develop urinary tract and upper respiratory infections as well as other illnesses when stressed too often, Krieger said. A cat suffering from an anxiety disorder might vocalize excessively, pace, chew on things, or over-groom when stressed. These reactions become self-soothing, which reinforces the behaviors and causes the cat to repeat them.

Look for any changes in your cat’s behavior patterns, Krieger said: “If your cat used to be friendly and becomes standoffish, get [her] looked at.”

Compulsive behaviors can cause or be caused by medical issues, so regardless, involve your veterinarian.

How to help our cats

Once your vet has seen your cat, determine what your cat’s anxiety triggers are and either remove them or recondition your cat toward them.

“If a new cat is in your household, you might have to reintroduce the cats,” Krieger said.

This time, go slower. She also recommended adding vertical territory so the cats can show their hierarchy as well as providing more enrichment toys since boredom can cause stress.

“Don’t use laser pointers, because they can’t catch them and that stresses them,” she said.

Keep your cats on a regular schedule that includes playtime, treasure hunts, possibly even clicker training, said Krieger, who wrote a book on the subject, Naughty No More.

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A boy plays with a cat by Shutterstock

If your cat is chewing fabric, remove what she’s chewing, but give her something else, perhaps a fur toy or dental health chew. “Give them healthy alternatives,” Krieger said.

If a newborn baby just arrived to the household, do things your cat enjoys around the baby, she recommended. Better yet, condition her to baby sounds and smells before introducing them.

Control your emotions

While denying, repressing, burying, or ignoring our emotions is never healthy, we do need to control them, because we can affect and cause undue stress on others, especially children and pets. There are numerous healthy ways to process our emotions. We need to recognize our profound emotional impact on our cats.

“Cats are very sensitive to our emotional state,” Krieger said.

She recounted how her own cats responded to her grief when each of her parents died.

“I wonder if they can smell the cortisol release or if there’s a special stress smell,” Krieger pondered when considering how cats react to our emotional state.

Many of her clients start worrying when their cats show signs of anxiety, which only continues the cycle. Or, they give too much attention, overfeed the cat, soothe the cat, all while inadvertently reinforcing the behavior. Some even yell or threaten to get rid of the cat, which causes everyone’s anxiety to escalate.

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A stressed-out woman by Shutterstock

“If the person no longer wants the cat around, the cat feels that and becomes more anxious,” she said. “People who absolutely adore their cat become anxious and worried, and the cat picks up on that and becomes more anxious.”

So what are we to do? Exercise emotional control. Process our emotions in healthy ways. Become the grown-up in stressful situations.

We’ve seen it with human children. A toddler falls, begins to panic, then immediately following a parent’s kiss and calming reassurance that everything is all right, laughs it off and resumes play. To be able to set the atmosphere and impact others’ emotions, that’s a lot of power to wield, so remember to control it.

About the author: Susan Logan-McCracken and her husband are brushing their two cats, Sophie and Maddie, more regularly now that they have found a brush that their kitties love. Their Southern California home has less cat hair floating around in it now.