It’s true cats have emotions. They display all of the same emotions we humans universally share -- happiness, fear, surprise, disgust, sadness and anger. They can also exhibit joy, anxiety, inquisitiveness, and other behaviors linked to their emotional lives. Like people, some cats are restrained in showing their emotions while others wear them on their forelimbs.
Our Bernie Uncle Ernie is such a cat. His body language is enunciated by his expressive face and eyes, his twitching ears and swishing tail. There is seldom any doubt as to what he’s feeling.
Bernie was rescued two years ago by a Big Lots employee who discovered the kitten shivering under a dumpster one cold, rainy morning. While shopping there that afternoon I was somehow conned into leaving the store with the tiny yellow, frightened youngster. Driving home, he mewled piteously from the makeshift pet box and shrank in fear when I peered into it.
Over time he melded into our petcentric family. He became comfortable with Mojo, our large slobbering Aussie-mix dog, who regularly slimes him with his giant tongue, bathing him from tip to stern. He’s developed a respectful relationship with Mali, our elderly tortoiseshell matriarch. Although they’re not what you’d call friends, they’ve learned to co-exist, giving the other wide berth when necessary. As Bernie grew, so did his playful, showboating, look-at-me-mom personality. He cheerily snatched the alphacat position, dominating all pet-human interactions and sulking when he’s not the center of attention.
We soon noticed Bernie is a fearful cat who harbors anxieties ranging from the typical horror of vacuum cleaners to the unexplained trepidation of rattling keys, rustling newspapers, clattering dishes, and the sound of cabinet doors being opened or closed. Quick movements send him scurrying to another room.
While it’s not unusual for cats to be stressed by the shrill, prolonged whooshing of a vacuum cleaner, Bernie’s horror seems pathological. The mere sight of the device pulled from the closet sends him fleeing to remote corners of the house. If vacuuming begins early we may not see hide nor whisker of Bernie until late evening. He’ll even miss cat-treat-dinner if he hasn’t sufficiently recovered from the terror of the Rainbow cleaner.
Why is Bernie such a fraidy cat? Was he traumatized as a kitten, resulting in his dread of quick movement and certain noises? Our vet hasn’t discovered anything explaining these unpleasant emotions, and yes, he’s also terrified of our gentle, kindly vet.
Because we take seriously our pets’ emotions we’ve sought to discover how we might ease Bernie’s fears and allow him to relax rather than flee. We began by becoming more mindful about abrupt movements in his presence. We walk carefully when passing him perched on a chair; we’ll reach up in slow motion, turning our heads away from him, to pluck a skillet from the hanging pan rack. If we communicate through body language what we’re doing is no big deal, he’ll often twitch nervously for a moment, but will stay rather than flee. When placing items on the stainless prep table we do so gingerly, as we discovered the rattle-clatter of keys on this surface can send him into a panic attack.
We’ve also employed the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), a healing modality that can calm the parasympathetic nervous system. This involves gentle tapping on acupressure points, primarily around his head and face. The purpose is to help release anxieties and phobias as well as alleviate tension and pain. Drawn from ancient Chinese medicine, EFT is also believed to stimulate an animal’s immune system.
Earlier this year we learned our veterinary clinic is a certified Fear Free practice. From them, and from Fear Free’s online training modules, we’ve learned even more how to calm Bernie’s anxieties and better prepare all of our pets for the dreaded vet visit. We now use essential oils like lavender to help Bernie relax even more before a visit. We sprinkle some on his blankets, and a dab more on one of Michael’s t-shirts lining the carrier. We’ve learned to withhold food before our visit so his vet can offer some crunchy treats. We also bring along his grooming brush and one of his toys to help distract him and put him at ease.
I won’t say these measures have totally cured him of his fears and anxieties but they’re helping. And they’ve made vet visits less stressful for all of us. We totally accept our Bernie is an emotional, drama-filled cat but we’re well on the way to helping him reduce his fears and become a healthier, happier feline.
Contact Deborah at email@example.com for comments or suggestions.