The Mind of Your Cat: 12/02

Question: I recently brought my beautiful cat to his first cat show. He is so friendly and playful with all the friends he meets at our home. I thought he would enjoy all of the attention at the show. Yet he hid under his bed all day. He did not greet a single person. He appeared to cower whenever someone, including me, attempted to pet him.

Answer: It sounds as though your cat was a bit overwhelmed by the cat show experience. That is quite understandable. There are few similarities between the routine of a house cat and the excitement of a cat show.

To begin with, it is quite possible that you yourself were a bit concerned about the events of the day. Did you remember to pack all the essentials? Would your cat win a ribbon? Since cats perceive and respond to our mood changes, it is likely that your cat already knew this day would be different from most days.

Next, there was the inevitable car ride. To most cats, a car ride signals that the veterinarian is just around the corner. Just being placed into a carrier seems to increase the arousal of the average pet cat.

And then there was the show itself. Enthusiastic people everywhere. Loud voices and clapping noises echoing through the show site. Hiding seemed a reasonable choice. Added to the new noises were the frightening things to look at. A show cat faces exhibitors rushing by as they attempt to get their cats to the judging areas on time. Spectators hover over attractive cats, attempting to gain a closer look.
Finally, the show site is filled with the unfamiliar scents and pheromones of cats in attendance. These cats may be just as concerned as your little fellow with his own fear response.

So what to do next time? Lets consider all of the components of the cat show experience that have been described: the sounds, sights, and scents.

First, consider the novel sounds of a cat show. Why not attend a busy cat show without your cat? Bring a tape recorder and record the assorted sounds you encounter during the course of the day. Once you are home, play a small portion of the recording in your cats presence and notice his reaction. If he alerts but does not appear terribly frightened by the sounds, plan to play the tape for about one hour each day while your cat engages in his normal routine. Soon, the sounds should become background noise.

On the other hand, if your cat heads for cover and appears unlikely to resurface, then you will need to expose him to these sounds in a more gradual, systematic manner. You could use the behavior modification technique of systematic desensitization. The process must be done slowly or you risk sensitizing your cat to the sounds.

To begin systematic desensitization, play the tape at a volume that is so low that your cat barely alerts to the sound. Continue at that low level for the first session. Sessions should average 30 to 60 minutes and must always conclude on a positive note, while your cat is calm. As the tape plays, you may engage your cat in an activity that he enjoys: play with him, brush him, or feed him some appropriate treats.

Once your cat appears to ignore the recording, very slightly increase the volume. Again plan two or three sessions at the new level. Continue to gradually increase the volume until your cat no longer appears to respond to the sounds as they are played at a realistic level. Then, play the tape several times each week for an hour or so to assure that your cat continues to accept the assorted sounds.

The next consideration is the unfamiliar sights and high level of activity that your cat will encounter at a show. If your cat is usually friendly, then he might enjoy meeting one or two new people at a time. Bring him along when you visit your friends. This will accomplish two things. First, it will give him an opportunity to go into the carrier and the car for pleasant experiences. And second, he will learn to play with and observe unfamiliar people in a variety of locations. Be sure to progress slowly as his initial response in new surroundings may be to hide. Offer access to toys and food (and a portable litter box just in case) in the new environment. Bring one of his soft mats from home to serve as a familiar security blanket. The mat would remain in his carrier or crate so that he can retreat there when he needs to rest.

Finally, although many cats do not appreciate play dates, you may be able to arrange a social gathering that includes your friends healthy cats. The cats would remain secure in their respective cages while you enjoy one anothers company. This would allow your cat to appreciate that he is safe in his carrier even when there are other cats nearby,

On the day of the show, be sure to bring your cats security blanket, and do provide a hiding place. Until he is comfortable, ask spectators to stand back from his cage, and do not permit people to stare at or reach for him. He still has a lot of adjusting to do. Once he is comfortable with the show experience, he may be invited to interact with his admirers.

Take your time. Eventually, your cat may come to tolerate or even appreciate the attention he will receive as the star of the show.

Should you get another cat in the future, plan ahead by bringing the kitten to new locations frequently. Kitten kindergarten classes are available in many areas to help young kittens learn to socialize with people and other cats. Once your kitten is fully vaccinated, he may even attend cat shows. Your veterinarian will be able to advise you at what age your kitten is ready to get out and share your hobby.