This is a note, no more because I don’t want to waffle around this subject. But, today, it occurred to me that sometimes domestic cat’s become anxious because they do not understand some human possessions and certain aspects of human activity. If you don’t understand something, it will almost invariably lead to anxiety and that assessment applies to any animal, including the human-animal. It is said that what we don’t know, we fear, and humans have a tendency to try and destroy things they fear.
I’ll you give some examples. About five minutes ago my cat came onto the bed to sit on my legs while I dictated this article. Outside a delivery van drew up to deliver food and groceries to my neighbour which is commonplace nowadays because of the coronavirus lockdowns. My cat heard the banging of doors and the rattling of trolleys.
He stopped what he was doing and, slightly anxiously, turned and looked outside. He couldn’t settle until he was sure that the noises he was hearing were not hostile and there was no danger. He didn’t comprehend at least two things. Firstly, that it was a delivery van and therefore there was no hostility. Secondly, it was outside the home and everything is locked, and therefore he is safe inside the home, even if there was a hostile creature outside.
Obviously I understood what was going on, but he didn’t. It’s the same reason why fireworks frighten cats and dogs. They don’t understand fireworks. Fireworks don’t frighten people; they irritate them. But they don’t frighten people because we know what they are. We know that they are not dangerous if they are being set off many yards away from home. It’s simpy irritating. Our understanding of these loud noises leads us to a calm response unless we become angry, which is forgivable considering fireworks tend to go on far too long in developed countries.
You can extend this argument all kinds of human activities. Take punishment, for example. Your cat does something that you disapprove of. You yell at him in frustration, irritation, and yes, anger because you are stressed by something else and your cat’s behaviour is the last straw. Your cat doesn’t understand why you’re direcitng lots of noise at him. He becomes anxious.
If your cat understood the reasons for your behaviour he would simply turn around, saunter off and say to himself: “what a stupid idiot!”. He would be calm and not anxious.
Other common activities scare most cats: hoovering the home, the doorbell ringing, a stranger approaching the front window, a stranger entering the home and so on. They are all unknown quantities and therefore potential hazards dangerous to cats.
And punishment, too is ineffective. A cat needs to understand the standards expected of him and that he did not meet those standards. Cats don’t have these sort of thoughts. These are human thoughts and standards. Therefore punishment cannot work, and simply harms the relationship.
The classic and well-publicised example, on internet videos, of how a lack of understanding of what’s happening can cause anxiety, is when you put a cucumber behind a cat and he is unaware of it. He turns around and sees it and jumps out of his skin. People ask why are cats frightened of cucumbers? They are not frightened of cucumbers per se. They are frightened of something close which is unknown to them and which they’ve not seen before. It might be hostile. A cucumber is a vegetable eaten by humans. It is an object which is part of human life, but not part of cat life. That’s why they don’t understand it and why it can make them anxious.
There is nothing one can do to educate a cat about human activities except to hope that they will learn that some things in the human world are not hostile and many things are friendly and safe and to be welcomed. Cats are good observational learners.
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