Ethology and veterinary practice: Shadowy feline behaviors, continued
Thursday, February 07, 2019
Last month's brief considered two normal behaviors that create problems for some people. It began with a discussion of cats who knew all the behaviors involved in proper litter box elimination but never properly connected them. The brief ended with a brief introduction to feline sucking behaviors related to premature weaning that also may create problems.
This month's brief looks specifically at cats who suck on people. As with many unusual companion animal behaviors for which personal experience and my veterinary education hadn’t prepared me, my introduction to it came from a new client.
Back in the era of peace, love, and joy in a college town, a dreamy-eyed young woman arrived with her neutered male cat for his annual vaccination. I remember her because, aside from her possibly drug-enhanced mood, there was the large cat with his paws wrapped around her neck sucking on her earlobe and purring.
When I asked her to put the cat down so I could examine him, she smiled uncertainly and asked, "Do I have to?"
I told her it was necessary for her cat’s health and promised to do this as smoothly and quickly as possible. She agreed and, although the cat initially resisted earlobe detachment, he was well-behaved. Finding everything within normal limits, I vaccinated him, she picked him up, and he immediately grabbed her neck and re-attached himself to her earlobe. The cat purred, she smiled, I smiled and wished the owner and cat a good day.
Since then I’ve encountered other people whose cats sucked on their earlobes, as well as fingertips and other body parts. Sometimes these folks shared this information in passing. Other times it came out in social settings when cat owners got into a game of one-upmanship regarding their cats’ strange behaviors.
Whereas these examples involved just sucking displays, my final example of feline behavioral shadows bears mention because it involves multiple behavioral elements. At the same time, though, these are displayed in such an out-of-normal-context manner, it would be easy for someone lacking knowledge of normal feline behavior to miss their significance.
The feline source of this fascinating sequence was a large neutered male of barn cat origin. Rather than being some sort of behavioral basket case, he was an excellent mouser, got along well with a menagerie of pets and livestock of all kinds, plus the human residents and visitors to their home. In short, he seemed like a perfectly normal multitasking farm/pet cat.
Shortly after the cat reached adulthood, his female owner (and avid animal behavior fan) fell asleep on the couch. She awoke to find the cat kneading her upper arm with his front paws while sucking and drooling on her shirt sleeve. However, he simultaneously treaded with his back legs and properly positioned for intromission.
"It was as if he had a split personality," the cat’s owner later told me. "His front end still thought he was a kitten nursing. But his back end was in mating mode."
While my friend found her cat’s behavior fascinating from an ethological perspective, I usually hear from people for whom their cats’ once accepted "unnatural" feline behavior has become problematic. "Unnatural" appears in quotation marks because, even though the behaviors themselves are quite natural, people who know nothing about normal feline behavior often perceive — or fear others will perceive — the behaviors as perverse. Worse, they may fear others will perceive them (the cats’ owners) as equally deviant for accepting and even enjoying these displays.
Consequently, practitioners must overcome any communication obstacles these situations create. I find it works best to address this possibility as part of my routine response to all clients whose animals’ behavior causes problem.
First, I remind them that, regardless how bizarre a behavior appears, it represents the most energy-efficient way for their animal to achieve the maximum physical and mental stability in that environment. Put another way, it’s normal behavior for that animal in that physical and mental environment at that time. However, now that circumstances have changed, we need to consider other, more suitable options.
Second, I tell them that I know they did their best, and so did their animals. I tell them this because I believe it.
Obviously, practitioners who find such animal behaviors and the bonds that support them highly embarrassing or repulsive should refer these cases without passing judgement.
What kinds of situations may arise that make once-acceptable, out-of-place behaviors problematic?
Sometimes the cats’ owners develop medical conditions incompatible with their animal’s behavior. In the case of those animals who suck human body parts, abrasions caused by feline suckers may become infected. Other human health problems such as cardiovascular or respiratory problems (including allergies) may be exacerbated by having such animals spending hours hugging or on top of these people with their paws around their owners’ necks.
Logic says that situations like these represent classic One Health problems: the physician addresses the human health problems and the veterinarian addresses — either directly or via referral — the feline behavioral and bond factors that support the behavior.
Fortunately, however, such dramatic cases are few and far between. But maybe it just seems that way. It’s also possible that people don’t mention the animal’s behavior to their physicians or their veterinarians because they see it as a source of comfort when they’re not feeling well. If they also suspect that their physician or veterinarian might criticize them for accepting the animal’s behavior, that would increase their reluctance to mention it.
However, the primary reason people seek help results from changes in the owner’s social lives. Singles who live alone and encourage these behaviors in young animals may want the behaviors stopped when a potential soulmate appears in their lives.
Roommates or partners who accepted the cat’s behavior because they observed its evolution from the time the cat was a kitten may move out. In these cases, the cost to the owner of extinguishing the behavior may seem less than that related to explaining the adult cat’s behavior to people who may or may not accept it.
Whether in response to medical or personal problems, people in both groups want the same thing: They want the behavior extinguished immediately. Of course, we all know that isn’t possible no matter how much we and our clients may desire this. Rare though these cases may be, it only takes one to remind practitioners that, convenient though it may seem to zero out the bond component, we do it at our peril.
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