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HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: The pervasive anxiety of cats

OPINION

Last week the journal Current Biology published a study on the socio-cognitive abilities of cats which proved that our feline friends, much like children or dogs, do actually form emotional attachments with their humans – the research was done to challenge the stereotype that cats are aloof and totally nonplussed by humans.

Yes, it’s true, cats may not run to you, jump for joy at your mere existence or go weeks and months without showing any affection, but it turns out they actually do form secure attachment bonds which makes them feel secure, calm, safe and comfortable in their environment and in your presence.

The study, conducted at Oregon University, saw cats and their owners participate in a very simple exercise. Owners spent two minutes with their kittens and then left the room for another two minutes. Once they had returned, 64% of the kittens appeared less stressed than when the separation occurred. Their behaviour was more secure, they felt safer roaming around and responded to contact with their owners. Aloof, they were not. There was a clear contrast between anxiety and comfort.

If you’re cat owner, as we are, you will find this information quite satisfying.

I have lost track of the numbers of hours I’ve spent wondering if my cat actually likes me. Whether little chubby Sam cares at all that we feed him, quench his thirst, sleep in uncomfortable positions throughout the night at the risk of many a stiff muscle in the morning just to make sure that he isn’t disturbed at night while curled up in a pretzel.

Does he appreciate the fact that he bounces on and off my chest each morning with absolutely no regard of the impact on breasts and any awareness of how heavy he actually is and that I never complain or shout at him? Does he have any idea that my perception of his unhappiness causes me great anxiety?

I was convinced the answer was a hard no, but this research brought me much relief – maybe he does actually care. Furthermore, the proof was in the pudding this very week when we shared the trauma of moving with our cat. Here’s a hint, he didn’t take a crap for 3 days because of the shock of his new environment and frankly, neither did I.

We’re not even sure what to do with ourselves in our new space, so we spend a lot of time in our bedroom which is just slightly smaller than our entire old place. He does the same. He has spent the past three days rolled up into a ball underneath the duvet and to be quite honest, I am jealous because I wish I could join him. But at the same time, his behaviour is bleeding into our own psyche. His insecurity is traveling through the ether and settling in that ugly place in our tummies where we simmer with worry all day. Has he peed today? Has he eaten? Is he taking enough water? Are we going to go home and launch a search party, only to find him dead from kidney failure in a heap of bubble wrap?

Now Sam is a rather anxious cat in general. He has an earnest looking face and he’s a bit of a comfort eater, thus the chubbiness and I totally get it. His early onset attachment issues come from quite a tortured past. We got him from the SPCA when he was about three months old. In that time he had already been adopted by a family with two kids as a Christmas present, they kept him for a month and then returned him in a box once school started again.

So, it’s totally understandable that boxes and black bags all over our old flat caused him much distress. He walked around with trepidation looking for his favourite blanket, he stared worriedly into the gaping hole where his couch once existed. And then, all of a sudden, all the boxes and black bags followed him to a new, much larger space. We were there, he was there, we had each other, but we also had that empty abyss in the hell pit of your belly filled with only worry. Sam has a bigger belly and therefore more worry, and his worry is pervasive.

The upside of all of this, of course, is that he is extremely needy and very much the perfect case study for the research mentioned above. He won’t leave us alone when we get home. He is so tightly intertwined with us when we’re around that his fur has become our fur. He doesn’t complain when we pick him up and he is ever ready for snuggles.

Anyone who moves houses will know that for at least the next month, the nights are filled with long hours spent making to-do lists for the next day. There is space for little else, but somehow, when you’re a cat owner, you have to make space for constantly stressing about a litter tray. “Maybe he didn’t use it but was he at least in it? Is there evidence of some pawing and rummaging in the crystals? Let’s go look”. Never mind that we don’t have our own middle-class creature comforts like WiFi or a working shower yet and that we have to put aside time in our day to take care of basic hygiene at the gym. These are all first-world problems, I realise, but here we are. I am extremely grateful for these classist worries and I recognise the privilege that comes with being able to worry about cat urine.

But I also have a mental illness. I am a chronic depressive and anxiety sufferer and one of the main reasons I have a cat is because even if he is aloof, he does provide much emotional support – he’s an emotional support cat and he doesn’t even know it. In fact, there’s even research to prove this - the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute found that 74% of pet owners say having a cat improved their mental health, but right now, Sam is not doing his job well at all and frankly, I miss the snarly version of him who every so often shot dead shark eyes my way and took revenge poops on the kitchen floor.

When is that guy coming back? Because frankly, I would rather worry about whether he likes me than having to deal with his pervasive anxiety and his bowel and bladder movements so that I have time to deal with my own crap – excuse the pun.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.

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