Do You Consider Yourself a Cat Parent or Owner?
Today’s guest post is from Denise van Lent, a Dutch biologist specializing in feline behavior.
Research shows that people have the same kind of feelings towards their dogs as for their children. Cat owners also tend to refer to themselves as “cat mom or cat dad”. As such, we subconsciously attribute human characteristics and values to our animals, which is called personification or anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is based on the human tendency to interpret animal behavior from human feelings thoughts and language. The question then arises as to whether this benefits cats. Or, are we humanifying cats to a degree that it becomes harmful?
The human-animal connection is ever so powerful. Cats are increasingly considered as a full member of the family rather than just a pet. The connection is reinforced by the conception that humans are capable of understanding animals. Anthropomorphism is used as a tool in that very process of trying to understand animals. It enables us to interpret their behavior in a way that makes sense to us. It does not matter whether you actually understand the animal’s behavior, or that it is false sense of understanding. Ultimately the (apparent) understanding of the animal reinforces the notion that you and the animal have a strong connection.
For us humans it is quite difficult to empathize with the way that animals perceive and experience the world. We understand animals best when we consider them as furry mini-humans. The downside of this way of thinking is that people might neglect or ignore the animal specific needs because we do not consider them different from our own. When these needs are not recognized and met, it becomes harmful to the cat.
Kitty’s needs differ from your children’s
Quite a few cat owners consider their cats to be their children. Cats and children share several similar characteristics including innocence, high vulnerability and dependency. Some people tend to spoil their cats as if they were children. Giving them the tastiest treats, lots of attention and a lot of new toys to play with. Considering your cat as your child however can become harmful when you no longer recognize that your cat has specific cattish needs. A human baby will cry or even scream when it is sick or in pain. To a parent these are clear signals that their child needs taken care of. This form of communication between mother and child is biologically driven to assure the survival of the human species. For a cat however, it is biologically advantageous to hide any signs of weakness. Hence, your cat-child has amazing sickness and pain hiding skills. The remark that some people make about “their 15 year old cat that has never in their life paid one visit to their vet” therefore saddens me deeply. Because that doesn’t mean the cat has been healthy for 15 years. It is more likely that the owner of the cat was waiting for clear signals that never came. That is why I can’t emphasize enough that every cat (even the seemingly healthy ones) should pay a visit to the vet every year. Cats that are older than 8 years old should visit the vet twice a year.
Putting your cat clothes on
Putting your cat clothes on, like you would with a baby or a doll, is an example of anthropomorphism. Apart from sick and naked ones, cats do not benefit from wearing clothing. Of course there are some that are so gentle and trusting that they will allow you to put them through it. But there is no reason to think that they might actually feel pretty or comfortable in a dress. That is a human emotion attributed to the cat, thus anthropomorphism in its pure form.
If we would continue looking through our humanifying eyes, one would consider a cat which cuddles up to you when you are sick, as ‘caring or concerned’. While in reality the cat most probably just enjoys the warmth of you or your blanket. Attentive people care for sick people in that way, cats don’t. This does not mean that your animal has no emotions. Cats have the same brain mechanisms needed to evoke a range of emotions ((Book: John Bradshaw, The Secret of the cat, September 2013, ISBN 9,789,046,815,144)). However, an animal has its own perception of his environment that is different from that of humans. So it is not inconceivable that animals experience emotions differently than we do, for example, more in the moment.
The human-animal connection is something special
As a biologist, I do not consider my cats as if they were my children, because I think that what we do have with animals is as special as it is. From a biological perspective, the bond between humans and animals is very special because this relationship does not have the same advantages as a relationship between mother and child does. Without that strong mother-baby bond our helpless human babies would be doomed. Unconsciously the mother recognizes the signals of her child and responds both physically and psychologically on them. It makes her want to spend time and energy to take care of this child. The mother-child connection is so strong to ensure the survival of the human species.
This does not apply to the cat-human connection. Cats and humans do benefit from each other, but it is not vital. It is therefore been a more or less voluntary choice of both species. How special is that!
Denise van Lent is a Dutch biologist specialized in feline behavior and obesity. She is the owner of the institute for animal welfare and behavior ‘lekker in je vacht’ which translates to “comfortable in your fur”. It is an organisation for research and knowledge transfer regarding the well-being and welfare of pets. The institute offers personal support per email consultation.