At the beginning of November, I attended the Purina Better With Pets Summit in Brooklyn, and one of the panels focused on stress and pets. Along with discussing ways to reduce stress for shelter cats and cats who have to go to the vet, they also mentioned that stress is not always a bad thing. Mild stressors can benefit a cat, stimulating her brain, strengthening her immune system and alleviating boredom.
Think about it. People may yearn for a stress-free life, but they really don’t want one. Exercising, learning a new skill, accomplishing an exciting new work project, even watching a scary movie or riding a roller coaster are all low level stressors. How dull would your life be if you didn’t get to experience any of these? Stress is a matter of perception, and how you react to any given experience. There is bad stress (or dis-stress): working for a toxic boss, watching your child make bad life choices, living constantly in fear. Good stress is seen as a challenge, something to meet head-on, something inspiring, and it ultimately makes you feel good. It can work for your cat the same way.
In fact, your cat should be offered challenges to keep her spirit up, her boredom level down, and to keep her open to new activities. For most cats, challenging activities are simple ones like a good, hard play session, teaching them tricks, or giving them a puzzle treat dispenser. If you have a cat like mine, however, who travels frequently and mingles with the public, creating challenging, low-level stress situations is a different thing altogether.
Cats like Summer need to be routinely taken out in different situations to keep up their sociability. If you stop for too long, they fall out of the habit and you are stuck having to start from scratch all over again. I was reminded of this recently when I took Summer outside in the front yard, after not doing it for a couple of months, and finding out she had developed a fear of cars passing by. She just wasn’t used to it anymore. While I do want her to have a healthy respect for cars and roads, I don’t want her trying to bolt every time a car passes by. So I’ve been taking her out on every non-rainy day to get her used to cars again. She receives lots of treats, especially when a car comes up the street, and gradually, she is getting used to traffic again.
When I’m giving Summer challenges, I watch very carefully for her signals to make sure I’m not pushing her too hard. Because she’s very treat motivated and has learned some simple tricks, I use this as a gauge. If she is too nervous to do tricks or enjoy a treat, then I need to back off and take her to a place she perceives as safer. Then I slowly work back up to the situation she found scary.
Some cats are naturally more timid than others, but I also wonder if maybe we are being too protective of them by not challenging them enough. Few cats are as outgoing as Summer, but wouldn’t most cats be happier if they got some really good interactive playtime more often, or even learned a few tricks? Maybe your cat would like to explore the outdoors on a harness and leash. All of this requires human time commitment, but it’s so worth it because you wind up with a more well-adjusted cat, and a better human-feline bond.