Emotional Needs of the Cat

Having been a cat carer for many years, I have learned one thing about the emotional needs of the cat.

Just like people, they need someone to “talk” to, someone who will “listen” (and not just when they want food).

healthy cat

Emotional Needs of the Cat

Lulu

I remember the first time I met Lulu. She was a starving, terrified kitten, crouching at the bottom of a drainage ditch by a busy road. She was terrified of humans, and wouldn’t let anyone near her. It took me months to gain her trust, but eventually, I managed to get her into my care.

At first, Lulu didn’t want anything to do with me. She would hide under the bed or dart into the wardrobe whenever I came into the room. But over time she came to realise that I was her friend, and gradually we forged a trusting bond.

As a cat carer, I have learned that it is important to understand their “emotional needs.” But before we dive into the details of that, let me ask you a question: do cats have emotions? It might sound silly or strange, but if you consider what they are feeling when they purr and rub against us, then yes.

Cats seek attention from humans because they feel happy and content with them around. If an animal does not show emotion in some way- either through vocalization or physical response- then how can any human know what type of emotional state they are in?

However, there are times when this is difficult for people who don’t know how to read body language well enough.

When we look back at the history of the cat, it is hard to believe that cats have emotions and that you, as the owner, can understand the “emotional needs of the cat”.

Domestic Cats

Cats have shared our domestic environment for 4,000 years.  In the Middle East and North Africa, wild cats were attracted to the mice which frequented corn stores.

Cats developed as wild animals and predators, and domesticated house cats retain the hunter’s natural instincts.

Domestication means that cats are reliant on their owners to care for their emotional wellbeing.  Your cat’s emotional needs are based on their personality, age, and lifestyle.  Older cats, and those that spend all or most of their time in the home, are more dependent on the owner.

The cat is driven by the need to seek rewards, care, and play. A successful hunt provides a reward (the prey) and fulfils the play instinct. 

Cats are emotional and expressive animals, capable of deep affection and also panic, anger, jealousy, lust, and fear.  Every cat has a unique personality and temperament.  By understanding the cat’s emotional needs, the owner helps the cat to live a fulfilling life and form a close bond.

Emotional Needs of the Cat

Hunting and Play

The play reflects the cat’s impulse to practice hunting skills.  Kittens begin to learn these skills in the litter, stalking, chasing, pouncing on, and biting each other.  Cats can be encouraged to play chase and pounce games.  Moving toys designed for cats are ideal, enabling them to carry out this behaviour and satisfy their needs.

These games are fun for the owner and the cat, keeping the cat healthy physically and mentally.  Several times a day, try to engage the cat in games with balls and dangling toys. In a multi-cat household, cats develop healthy social relationships with each other, stalking, chasing, and pouncing on each other. 

This type of play is crucial to the cat’s well-being, keeping them relaxed and helping them to bond.

Bonding with the Owner

Indoor cats can be kept happy by providing lots of relaxed cuddling, gentle grooming, and petting.  Most cats have evolved a friendly dependency on their owners, and many demand attention and physical contact. 

The Cats Environment and Socialisation

Is an indoor cat as healthy as an outdoor cat?

Cats are kept indoors to protect them from diseases, car accidents, or from attacks by dogs, other cats, and people.  It is advisable to allow the cat to stay indoors at night.  Cats left outside at night are particularly vulnerable when they are more likely to be killed, injured, or lost. 

Cats are able to live happily indoors, provided the owner meets all their needs.  Cats are not solitary creatures and companionship is essential.  They grow up in litters, feral cats congregate in colonies, and domestic cats find feline friends.  The domestic cat regards their owner as of the ‘chief’, there for guidance and companionship. 

The age and gender of a feline friend are not a problem as long as the cats are neutered.  Temperament is more important and unrelated cats usually get on better than siblings or mother and adult offspring.  A domineering cat may not be an ideal companion for a timid cat.

Territorial marking

“I have 4 cats, and marking is a problem..”

A territorial cat may use urine and faeces as natural territorial markers.  The cat is announcing territorial ownership, and must NEVER be chastised or smacked.   In a multi-cat household, this may be a problem. 

There are commercial products available to dissuade the cat from marking, as well as using vinegar rinse, oil of peppermint or citrus oils in favourite marking areas.  You can also cover the problem area with plastic sheeting, a chair or even the feeding bowl.  If the problem continues, it may be necessary to separate the territorial cat to be solitary, or with just one companion.

Soiling may also be the first and only sign of potential illness and in case of doubt, it is important to consult the vet.

Psychological Problems

Is there any way we can make the cat happier in our company?

Cats are very susceptible to stress, and triggers could be illness, environmental changes or alteration in routine, ie. an alteration of feeding times.  As cats are creatures of habit, they tend to regard change as a threat. 
Stress can trigger or exacerbate existing medical conditions, such as asthma, skin allergies, FLUTD, stomatitis, pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease and liver inflammation. 
Catnip can relieve stress, together with exercise, massage and play.  If a cat has suffered previous ill-treatment, it will need understanding and patience.  The process of regaining trust must be in the cat’s own time and never be hurried.  

General advice on increasing mental health includes providing plenty of hiding places, such as knooks and crannies, preferably high up; cardboard boxes to hide and play in, and a sunny window sill where cats can enjoy the stimulation of watching the world go by.

The cat should have an easily accessible safe area, free of harassment by other cats, pets, or children.  This could be a separate quiet room, a private shelf or a cat tree.  Any external stressors, such as a window view of another animal, should be blocked.

Communicating with the Cat

How can I better understand what my cat wants to tell me?

cat eyes

Body language is the cat’s primary method of communication.  Learning your cat’s communication signals helps to strengthen the bond.  It helps you better understand, and respond to your cat’s wants and needs.

How to Understand Your Cat’s Signals

Cats communicate constantly and mainly express themselves with the position of their tails, bodies, and ears as well as their eyes.

Cats show that they’re feeling happy and relaxed by slowly lowering their eyelids.

Back Rolls

When a cat displays its vulnerable stomach area, it is feeling very safe, and relaxed in a trusted environment.

Purring and Kneading

The cat’s primary way of showing love and contentment is through kneading and purring.  This behaviour is also used to self-soothe in stressful situations.

Licking or Nibbling

Licking or nibbling indicates familiarity and acceptance.

Tail Up and Vibrating

A sign of happiness and excitement.

Tail Swishing Back and Forth

A playful motion to denote interest, or fear in a threatening situation.

Chatter

Chatter indicates excitement, usually when watching prey.

Ears Down and Back

Ears flat against the head, indicate fear or are part of a pounce during play.

Chirping

Queen cats will summon their kittens with this sound.  In the home, the cat is asking you to follow them, maybe to the door or the food dish.

Hissing

Hissing indicates hostility and is a warning sign to back off.

Cats That Lick the Human Face

Cat’s use their tongues to express affection and explore, with common reasons :

  • Attention seeking
  • Showing affection and acceptance
  • Washing and grooming their human

Obsessive licking may be stress-induced and a symptom of health problems.  This should be investigated by the vet.

A lick followed by a bite is a sign of affection or the cat’s desire to groom their human. The cat may also be wishing to play.  Cat’s are often sensitive when touched in some areas, and can express their discomfort through biting.

A cat that obsessively bites itself may have a health issue that needs investigating.

Stress Body Language

A cat experiencing stress will focus on the source of the perceived threat.  The pupils become dilated, the tail may thrash, and the back becomes arched.

Cat Tail Signals

A friendly cat will use its tail to encourage closeness with other individuals.  A tail held high and pointed straight up is the feline greeting, welcoming attention and interaction. 

A relaxed cat’s tail curves down and back up in a gentle U. The more interested, the higher the tail. A tail held high is a sign of a confident cat, and when the end tips over it denotes an interest in interaction.

Other cat tail signals warn you away indicating to keep a distance.  A swishing tail is a warning to back off, and a tail thumping the ground is a precursor to attack.  A moving tail generally indicates arousal of some sort, either excitement, fear, or aggression.

The end of the tail flicking back and forth usually indicates frustration or heightened emotion.  If this warning is ignored, the movement escalates to lashing or thumping — and ultimately an attack.

A bristled puffed up tail held upright or straight behind the cat indicates aggression.   If the bottlebrush tail is held in a U, this shows fear or defensiveness.

Cat Whisker Signals

Whiskers pushed forwards indicate interest and curiosity.  Whiskers are a powerful indicator for the newborn kitten when it is deaf and blind.  When whiskers are pressed against the sides of the chin, it is aggression.

 new born kitten

How to show affection and reassure the cat

1. Blink slowly, yawn and gaze lovingly into the cats’ eyes.  Look at the cat sideways, without staring

2. Mimic the miaow, reply when spoken to

3. Let the cat rub on you

4. Grooming and stroking

5. Know when it is time to see the vet.   If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian.

Other Causes of Stress

Belly stroking – this mimics the movements of a fighting companion and can trigger a hostile reaction.

Indicators of Stress

  • Excessive grooming and shedding
  • Changes in appetite
  • Aggression
  • Hiding
  • Elimination problems and spraying
  • Pacing and restlessness
  • Excessive vocalization
  • Changes in sleep patterns

Stress is often caused by health problems, and these systems should first be referred to the vet.

Stroking intolerance

A cat may become annoyed if stroked for too long (interpreted as a maternal gesture to induce submission). 

Signs of displeasure :

  • Moving away
  • Vocalizing (other than purring)
  • Laying ears flat or sideways
  • Flicking or lashing the tail
  • Twitching skin
  • Dilating or slitting pupils
  • Putting claws out
  • Pushing whiskers forwards
  • Stiffening shoulders and legs
  • Focusing on the hand, and swatting
  • Hissing
  • Using the teeth to grasp the wrist or hand

Be on the lookout for these warning signals, if they go ignored, the cat will lash out.  If you are distracted, ie. by the television or conversing, avoid petting the cat.

Friendly cats may touch noses or foreheads, rub against each other, and lick each other on the face and head.  All these gestures are perfunctory.  When the licking gesture exceeds 30 seconds, it can turn into a fight.

When cats are together, they limit their friendly physical contact. Cat friends sleep side by side and intertwine their bodies.  They prefer to be near, rather than actively touching.

How to Respect the Cat’s Personal Space

Stroke the cat for a few seconds only.  If the cat does not move away, wait a few minutes and then pet briefly again. Once the cat is aware that it will not be overloaded, it will relax and you can gradually work up to a few more strokes.

Every cat is different and has the right to decide when it wants to be touched, and for how long.  Different cats have favourite petting places, some prefer the top of the tail, others around the head and ears.

Treating the cat

Bribery with treats is one of the quickest ways to the cat’s heart.  The home can be made cat-friendly, by providing places to sunbathe, climb, hide, and sleep.

Separation Anxiety

When a cat is fond of the owner, separation can cause anxiety and loneliness, especially if there are no other pets.

The cat may display the following symptoms :

  • Inappropriate elimination of urine or faeces
  • Increased vocalization (meowing or crying)
  • Destructive behavior
  • Excessive grooming
  • Increased activity

These signs may not be present when the owner returns, and video camera recordings can be useful to observe separation anxiety.  To eliminate any other health issues, it is advisable to consult the vet.

Treating Separation Anxiety

Enhancing the cat’s environment :

  • Interactive enrichment toys, scratching posts, and puzzle feeders
  • Introducing another cat for companionship
  • Providing the cat with a stimulating view such as a window sill
  • Offer food dispensing or catnip infused enrichment toys to provide a distraction when you leave
  • Keep the TV, radio, or music on
  • Be discrete when leaving or returning home, to reduce anxiety
  • Departure cues when at home (picking up your car keys without leaving, going out the door and coming back in, etc.) 
  • Leave for a very short time, and build up over time

Other methods :

Supplements such as l-theanine (Anxitane, by Virbac), alpha-casozepine (Zykene, by Vetoquinol), and conventional medications such as fluoxetine.

Benzodiazepines administered by the vet relieve panic and fear, soothing and calming the cat.

Feliway is a synthetic version of the cat’s own pheromones, which reassure the cat and help it to feel safe.  It is particularly effective with environmental stress.

Cardboard Boxes

Boxes fulfil the instinctual desire for comfort and security combined with a great vantage point for stalking and pouncing.  Cats love boxes to sleep, strop claws, chew, sit or hide in. 

The Cat Headbutt

cat in washing machine

Cat’s scent glands are found all over their bodies, including the front paws, the underside of the tail, cheeks, chin and lips, and the forehead.  Cats want their home and owner to smell familiar, keeping them comfortable and relaxed in their own environment.

Friendly cats spread their scent by touching their forehead to yours and pushing their head against your leg or hand.  This is an affectionate way of combining scents (yours and theirs) to reinforce familiarity and bonding, which is called head bunting.

The cat rubs the scent glands against a surface to leave pheromones. Pheromones are chemicals that act as communicators between animals of the same species. 

Large feline species, like lions, also head bunt when they rejoin the pride after a hunting trip. In a multi-pet home, cats might head bunt the dog or another cat, creating a comforting communal scent amongst fellow family members.

Cats will show their pleasure, and seek attention in this way when a much-loved owner returns home.

Head bunting can indicate stress or uncertainty, ie.  newcomers or loud people in the home.  Other indicators of stress are wide or dilated eyes, ears flat on head, growling, hissing, tucked or twitching tail, or attempts to swat or bite.  Avoid touching the cat, instead provide a quiet room for them to re-adjust.

Head Pressing

A cat that forces its head against a hard surface or stands facing downward in a corner, has a health condition and needs to be seen immediately by the vet.

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