Understanding Cats and Their Fears



By Pamela Merritt / 08.30.2016

The Way of Cats

We are blessed, most of us, by living in an environment with a low incidence of what might be called sudden high risk of death. It exists, of course: highway driving, or certain occupations like high steel workers; but we are not usually conscious of such a risk.

Our cats, retaining all of their survival instincts and still operating at full strength, don’t really live in this same place we do.

Discovering where our worlds overlap, and where they differ, makes a huge difference to the success of our cat relationship.

the shape of their world

Mr WayofCats, an amateur medieval scholar, loves Game of Thrones. He is not alone. This show is well-written, well-acted, and gorgeously realized onscreen. All things I love. But it is a certain kind of violence I do not handle, so I cannot watch. It is far too full of injustice and cruelty to the innocent.

Dramatically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with that. As Mr WayofCats has pointed out, more than once, such behavior is historically accurate. It is that I prefer the historical accuracy of the Roaring Twenties in Prohibition-Era America, such as Boardwalk Empire, where people tend to bring violence upon themselves with their own bad decisions. For the time I watch the show, I prefer to live in that place, in my mind.

In their minds, cats live in Game of Thrones.

This creates a disconnect in many humans. Our homes are safe places to us, and most of the time, our cats feel that way, too. But our cats are much more likely to react with high speed reflexes designed to save their lives. This can get them into trouble, and us, too.

If we do not understand this cat response, we will misunderstand our cats.

the double-edged sword

There are not too many mammal niches where a creature is both predator and prey. One is humans, though that situation is mostly back in pre-history. Another is our cats.

This explains what might be called their “double barreled” response to being startled. They react with all the focused panic of prey trying to get away, and they use the sharp edges of the predator they usually are.

This fits right into my Cat Types theory, which states that the closer to the Alpha end of the spectrum a cat might be, the more “wild” their thinking and reflexes. It takes real effort to dislodge mid-Beta Reverend Jim from a cuddle session, and he quickly learned to ignore fireworks. While mid-Alpha Tristan will take off from my recumbent body when I tense up while trying to muffle a sneeze, and even now, at almost six years old, he finds a place to hide during fireworks.

Tristan has been coddled in our house since the age of three weeks. But that means nothing to his reflexes. One loud muffler from the street and he’s tense. Me shifting my weight can be a signal he interprets to take off from my lap. A sneeze from any human in the room, and he bolts.

He makes efforts to not scratch me, and I appreciate it. Because he can’t control it very much, just as I cannot control a sneeze.

the proper response

We should not treat the cat’s fear as foolish. They have great skills at picking up on our emotions, and feeling that their fear is a source of amusement to us will make them feel humiliated.

Perhaps their fear is similar to that of a child who fears monsters under their bed, but we shouldn’t belittle the child, either. In both cases, we have someone needing reassurance. That is what we should give them.

They were scared. That’s the important thing.

We also shouldn’t be scared ourselves, though. We should be calm and understanding. Yes, it was scary, especially for them, but it turned it to not be a thing, so we’re all happy about that. Our calmness will soothe our cat.

I call this Shaping the Response. Being calm about fireworks helps our cats on those occasions. Being understanding of how they reacted to a clatter from the kitchen or a burden suddenly set down will help us see how our cats are not being foolish.

They are reacting to sudden changes, which, in nature, can mean imminent doom. It doesn’t hurt, in nature, to over-react to possible doom. That could be the only way it doesn’t turn into actual doom.

I admire how cats show they are highly tuned to their environment. It can be breathtaking to see Tristan race to the top of his cat tree, or Mithy explode from cover to catch the wand toy. This is part of who cats are.

For everything, they go big.