Mind of the Cat: 10/05

Keeping a behavior log can establish a baseline for your pet - and alert you when things arent right.

Veterinary behaviorists can spend hours watching their subjects. What are the animals doing all this time? Mostly, they are engaging in normal, species-typical behaviors. In fact, it can be quite difficult to identify and manage problem behaviors without understanding which behaviors are truly normal. A question commonly posed to veterinarians and behaviorists is: Doc, is my cat normal?

It may be said that behaviorists – naturally enthusiastic about their field – do spend an inordinate amount of time watching behaviors that most people would consider to be rather dull. How many cat lovers could truly bear to watch 200 plus hours of cats using their litter boxes in a perfectly routine and appropriate fashion?

Yet without studying all those normal cats, it would not be possible to identify general trends, preferences and habits of cats. And it would not be possible to determine the likely cause for the failure to use a box in this very mundane manner.

Keep in mind that there is no need to give up meals and sleep to study ones own cats. However, it can be very rewarding to catalog some postures that are commonly observed. This can be done through a written behavioral log. Or you can use a video or photographic catalog to compile information. Try to capture and describe the behaviors that your cat performs on a regular, as well as on an intermittent, basis.

As you begin to identify particular postures and gestures, try to notice the contexts in which they are performed. And if you live with more than one cat in your home, notice the difference in the behaviors between the cats. How do those differences seem to relate to the individual personalities of the cats? And, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, try to guess why your cat engages in a particular behavior. As a behavior is repeated in a particular context, it will become easier to make this type of guess.

The Importance of the Diary
You may ask: Why bother? One important reason is that by cataloguing your cats normal behaviors, you will establish a baseline. This can be used as would any other medical baseline. Your veterinarian knows your cats normal physiological and biochemical parameters. When you bring your cat for a not feeling well visit, changes from your cats baseline can be easily determined.

The same principle applies in behavioral medicine. If your cat routinely scratches prior to urination and then suddenly stops, you have some information that may help your veterinarian or behaviorist begin to investigate the reason for the change. Perhaps your cat has a sore leg. Or perhaps he has an aversion to a new litter. You dont need to wait for lameness or housesoiling to begin.

Remember: Behavior changes are as significant as individual behaviors. But without recognizing the normal baseline behaviors, it can be rather difficult to appreciate subtle changes. And cats do typically respond to stress in a rather subtle manner. They do not want anyone to know when they are not up to snuff. They cannot appreciate that, as their owners, we want to help them when they are down. 

Lets use the example of the tail flick. Why does your cat do that? Well, exactly when does the cat exhibit this behavior? Is it when you settle in to relax? If so, your cat may be indicating that he is uncomfortable with the anticipated loss of attention. Does he flick his tail when you are very active? Perhaps he is concerned about being left alone. He may need some help with separation anxiety.

On the other hand, you may actually find that your cat flicks his tail primarily when he seems quite relaxed. In the future, should you see that flick, you can accurately determine your cats mood. You will know whether he is comfortable in a particular location or with a particular person or animal.

Once you understand the significance of the behavior, you can implement behavior modification, should it be needed. For instance, suppose you determine that your cat flicks his tail when he is uneasy. By attending to this signal, you can learn the triggers for his discomfort. Then you may effectively reduce your cats reactivity and increase his comfort level in a given situation.

Maybe we can never really read our cats minds. But maybe we can come close.