I am reading a short summary on the treatment of an aggressive Maine Coon cat. The summary does not paint the entire picture which in one way makes it interesting and in another it makes it irritating. There are some holes in the story.
This is the story: a Maine Coon cat was being aggressive towards their owners. The cat was actually aggressive to other people but mainly the owners. But here’s the interesting part: the cat reacted towards “different, non-specific sounds with abrupt aggressive behaviour and injured the victims at this juncture with moderate scratching and biting.”
So, this Maine Coon cat was provoked into aggressive behaviour because of the sounds that he heard. Surely that requires deep investigation. It sounds to me as if he was suffering from quite a well-known condition called “feline audiogenic reflex seizures” (FARS). This is a condition which causes a cat to have seizures and behave strangely when they hear particular sounds like the crinkling of tinfoil or perhaps even plastic bags.
In my view, all domestic cats do not like sharp crinkling sounds from any source. The sound might not always produce a seizure which is very dramatic but it may produce behaviour which indicates a dislike of the sound and this prompts me to believe that this Maine Coon cat might have suffered from a lesser version of FARS but it is not mentioned in the summary to the study.
Putting that to one side for the moment, they tried to cure the cat with behaviour-modulating therapy. I guess that means they tried to train the problem out of the cat through classic positive reinforcement training.
It didn’t work. They decided on medication which was fluvoxamine, a well-known antidepressant for people. It is one of those selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
Comment: why give a cat a long-term antidepressant when he was not depressed and why not simply protect him from the sounds that upset him? That would have resolved the behaviour problem immediately without drugs, which should always be avoided if possible as all drugs are essentially poisons.
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We remain unsure about domestic cats’ reaction to music. More than 30 years ago, the great Dr. Desmond Morris said that domestic cats react idiosyncratically to the sound of music. What he was saying is that each individual cat reacts in their own way to human music because at that time no one had written ‘cat music’.
The picture some 30 years later is still unclear. Some authors are positive about it while others are sceptical. On the internet today, Purina states that music can make cats happy. The author states, “all the evidence points to the fact that cats do like music”.
I’m not as confident. I am not as confident about whether domestic cats like certain types of music or sounds or simply respond to certain types of music and sounds. Responding to either human or cat music does not mean that the cat is enjoying it. Humans listen to music for one reason: pleasure.
A couple of fairly recent studies point to the fact that music can alleviate stress in a domestic cat. For example, one study (2019) looked at the effects of music on behaviour and stress in domestic cats in a veterinary clinic. The conclusions were that listening to ‘cat music’ before during and after a physical examination was linked to lower stress.
They concluded that “cat-specific music may benefit cats by decreasing the stress levels and increasing the quality of care in veterinary clinical settings.”
In this experiment, the results suggested “that cats under general anaesthesia are likely to perform auditory sensory stimuli processing” leading to a conclusion that “the use of music in the surgical theatre may contribute to allowing a reduced anaesthetic dose, minimising undesirable side effects and thus promoting patient safety.”
A modest success therefore using music to improve patient safety in the veterinary clinic when under general anaesthetic. Good news but are any vets using music?
Dr. Morris’s book was published in 1987; a time when there was less knowledge about the effect of music on domestic cats. However, it appears that there hasn’t been an awful lot of progress since then, perhaps because of two reasons (a) this knowledge is not vital in terms of the relationship between humans and cats and (b) it is almost impossible to probe into the minds of domestic cats and decide what they are thinking at any one time.
Dr. Morris made the following findings in his book:
Some cats show no interest in music.
Some cats adore it.
Some cats detest it!
It’s hard, therefore, to make sense of what is going on.
The French writer Theophile Gautier lived with a cat who would listen attentively to the singers who accompanied him when he played the piano. However, the high notes produced an unhappy response. Dr. Morris deduced that the high notes probably reminded Gautier’s cat of feline distress as the cat would reach out with his paw and try to close the singer’s mouth. Every time the singer sang the note of high A his cat responded in the same way.
Another Frenchman found that his cat threw themselves “into uncontrollable convulsions” in reaction to a certain sequence of notes. But a second cat also present jumped up and sat on the piano and listened intently to the music. Idiosyncratic indeed.
The composer Henry Sanguet found that his cat, Cody, became “ecstatic when it heard Debussy being played on the piano”. The cat would roll around the carpet and leap onto the piano and then onto the pianist’s lap. Note: there is a well-known video on the internet of a man playing the piano with his cat on his lap adoring the whole performance. The video is a picture of mutual love.
In the 1930s, a couple of doctors by the names of Morin and Bachrach found that the note of E of the fourth octave caused cats to defecate! And the adult ones became sexually excited. High notes caused the cats to become agitated. Note: defecation might have been a fear response.
Dr. Morris concluded that in every case, cats don’t enjoy music as humans do for the quality of the sound and the emotions that they elicit but relate to the music as if they are cries from other cats. They are converting the music into feline sounds i.e. forms of communication.
For example, the meowing of a distress kitten has a particular pitch which will match a particular note in music causing an adult cat to be disturbed and respond accordingly, particularly if they are female. That’s why Gautier’s cats touched the mouths of singers. They were trying to help in their own way.
Dr. Morris surmised that the convulsions and sexual excitement of cats to music were “no more than erotic responses to sounds that remind felines of the courtship tones of the species”. My comment here is that if these were genuine convulsions, they may have been seizures caused by an auditory reflex seizure as mentioned.
Domestic cats might relate to very high-pitched musical notes as squeals of pain causing a natural panic reaction in the listening cat.
He does not believe that cats have a musical sense. He regards that as a myth and has decided that all they are doing is “responding to selected notes according to their own instinctive system of sound signals”. Each individual cat responds in their own way and some particular musical notes trigger parental feelings and others trigger sexual ones or a desire to self-protect.
When people say that domestic cats respond to cat music and not human music it may be because the cat music creates frequencies and pitch which sound like domestic cat vocalisations and therefore, they prick up their ears and listen. It does not mean that they are enjoying it but simply responding to sounds that they know.
What do you think? Do you have personal experience of your cat enjoying music.
The sound and appearance of tin foil does not affect all domestic cats equally it seems 😃. The picture confounds the world view of domestic cats as creatures that are terrified of tin foil which it is used quite a lot as a cat deterrent in the home. An ugly deterrent I have to say. There are two deterrent factors: sound and appearance. Scientists and experts are still working out what is going on in the cat’s brain when encountering good old commonplace tin foil (aluminium foil).
The sound can even cause audiogenic reflex seizures (FARS) in cats. These are seizures caused by sound as you’ve probably guessed or know. But we don’t know what is happening. Other sounds can cause them such as a metal spoon clanging in a ceramic feeding bowl. Often these are sharp, metallic sounds.
There is something in the sound frequency and timbre that triggers an extreme reaction. And when cats jump on it or walk on it, it feels bad. But clearly, we can’t generalise as this tabby boy just doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. No sweat. No problem. No deterrent.
The owner was upset because he/she wanted to stop their cat jumping onto the kitchen counter. Failure. He asking fellow Reddit users why it had gone wrong. Years ago, I had the reasonable (I would say that) theory that the sound of tin foil triggers the flight reflex in cats because it sounds like a rattlesnake. Cats automatically regard snakes as dangerous. It is in their DNA. But cats have reflexes which are faster than those of snakes and can kill them or avoid being bitten. Is this also an evolutionary development?
Is the cat averse to the sound of tin foil because by accident it sounds like a rattlesnake which is a type of viper and of which there are 32 species. Rattlesnakes emit the sound to warn other creatures of their presence. It is a deterrent to others. They can change the frequency of the rattle which gives the impression that it is nearer than it actually is. This magnifies the deterrent effect.
We know that cats have excellent hearing which can detect sounds at a higher frequency than human hearing which is why they can hear mice and sometimes humans can’t. It is hearing which is geared up to detect small rodents, their main prey animal. Also, an evolutionary development I’d suggest.
Perhaps the sound of crinkling tin foil overloads the domestic cat’s sensitive hearing apparatus to the point where it can cause a seizure and at least be very uncomfortable which forces them to retreat.
And it is very shinny and peculiar (alien) to the domestic cat. Tin foil is a very unnatural object to them. When cats don’t understand an object (remember ‘cucumber fear’) they run as an act of self-preservation.
But, not always. I think the cat in the picture is a very big exception to the general rule that cats hate the stuff. Perhaps scientists should study him! There is one possible reason why this cat’s reaction is seemingly abnormal. It did not make a crinkly sound when he walked and crouched on it because it is completely flat to the counter.
P.S. Why are some cat owners so frightened of their cat going onto kitchen counters? I think this is an unwarranted fear. The bacteria on the counter is probably far more hazardous to human health than their fastidiously clean domestic cat.