Monday, 14 July 2008

It's a cat's life...

I work as a pet psychologist and I do enjoy my work, not only because I love animals (cats in particular) but also because pets like humans are unique and each one comes with his/her own special cat/dognality. This means though that sometimes I’m faced with situations aren’t simply unusual or ‘strange’ but sometimes rather amusing or even ‘embarrassing’ (for the owners). Pets aren’t shy when it comes to exhibiting sexual behaviours so homosexuality or even cases of hermaphrodite cats aren’t unheard of in the animal kingdom - quite normal for cats in particular – but in some occasions things can get a bit more complicated and their humans finding difficult to ‘handle’!
So in one occasion I was asked for advice by a rather furious owner of a hermaphrodite cat, who although had been neutered (as a male cat) a few months earlier, he/she had just given birth to four kittens, something which didn’t pleased her owner, who wasn’t very happy with the vet who treated the cat in the first place and failed to mention that not all hermaphrodites are sterile after all...
But I have found that most often I’ve been asked for advice on another kinds of behaviour, more common ones, like for example the well known by many cat owners as object ‘humping’’ - when neutered males carry on behaving like intact males well after they have been ‘done’ and ‘hump’ objects (there seems to be a general preference for teddy bears), other pets or even the feet of their owners. Although this behaviour isn’t unusual for male cats who had the ‘operation’ done after they had reached ‘maturity’ to still behave like intact tomcats for perhaps a few more months after the operation, at least (or much longer in some other cases), it’s still a behaviour that can become ‘problematic ’ for some cat carers! I have came across cases where the cat not only continues the ‘humping’ but seems to overdoing it by either leaving the teddy bear with bald patches, or by using systemically their owner’s foot at nights when sleeping or even in some other cases insisting on humping the foot of their overnight visitors (and not all visitors in these occasions seem to be able to see the funny side of things, especially when that foot belongs to the mother-in-law who stays in the guest-room for example). As these behaviours are quite natural for the cat, unfortunately, quite often there isn’t much their human carers can do than of course try not to reinforce the behaviour intentionally or unintentionally or even in some cases to consider the possibility of either seeing a behaviourist or their vet.
In some cases cats start exhibit ‘strange’ behaviours either because they are ‘bored’ or simply because their life style lacks sufficient stimulation with results to start exhibiting obsessive, destructive behaviours like the case of the ‘sponge thief’. A female domesticated longhair cat who developed a ‘preference’ for sponges and who would try to find them anywhere (she even learnt to open cupboards to get them or observed the owner when she was hiding them and then she would retrieve them) and then would carry them to the room (usually the kitchen) where the owner would be and then she would shred them to pieces. Although it started quite harmless as the cute kitten with the strange but funny behaviour it soon became an obsessive, destructive behaviour and soon she started, when she couldn’t find any sponges at home, visiting next door’s kitchen and bathroom and stealing what she could find - the well known now as the ‘sponge thief’.
Such forms of cat obsession can manifest in many forms and if not stopped at an early stage they can really get out of control and even become dangerous for the pet as some cats will steal anything from sink plagues to shining things and either hide them or simply destroy them or even start chewing wool, eating plastic bags, wires or even small toys (in some occasions). The causes of such behaviour vary (from lack of fibre in their diet to attention seeking and boredom and stress) but often they will become a ‘problem’ when humans reinforce them by either paying attention to the cat or even by trying to punish them.
Although these incidents might seem amusing the fact is that they can often become the cause of a lot frustration and can strain the relationship between humans and their pets. In many occasions pets simply exhibit a natural behaviour in an unnatural environment (for them) and in others they are simply trying to communicate with us. So it is entirely up to us to try and understand them and at the same keeping always in mind that they aren’t like us, no matter how humanlike we are treating them, and they see and understand the world differently than we do!