There’s a common misconception that you must constantly prove to your pets that you are in charge or they will become poorly behaved or aggressive. The reality is that having control feels good and that’s totally okay. Feeling good because they know they have some control over their life doesn’t mean your cat is bent on controlling you in some nefarious way.
Control Feels Good
Put simply, control matters for survival. If an animal can’t make decisions to avoid danger or find food, they could die. While our pets have their physical needs met by us, there is still a part of their brain that worries that lack of control could hurt them.
Then, there’s the fact that, at a very base level, control itself seems to be rewarding. Young children and cats, alike, delight in knocking things off raised surfaces to see what happens. When choice is restricted in some ways (say, by having to stay home due to a pandemic), we often seek other ways to control our world (redecorating). We sometimes even refuse to do something we actually want to do, just because someone told us we have to do it. If we have no choice, we don’t want to do it anymore!
Finally, there have been studies showing that having a choice makes us happy. If I move into a new home with painted walls, I may like that color just fine. If I choose that color and paint those walls, well then, that’s the best color there is! Having control over a choice is worth more than being simply offered the thing you would have chosen. It turns out this is true for cats, too.
What Happens When You Have No Control
Again, there are many similarities in how humans and animals react to a lack of choice. Unfortunately, in 2020, many of us can understand the frustration, stress, and anger that comes from a lack of choice.
One of the concerning phenomena that can occur when choice is removed is called “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness occurs when an individual finds that nothing they do makes a difference to their situation (particularly when trying to escape something scary or painful) and they stop trying anything. They don’t bother trying to feel better and may even physically shut down. Psychologists have been studying this condition for decades and some theorize that it is related to clinical depression in humans. In cats, we may see this manifest as a cat that disappears under a bed and never comes out. Owners may mistake this as “fine,” because the cat isn’t doing anything that is a problem for the human. However, that cat is in a state of high stress; a shutdown cat is not okay.
Other cats will exhibit another common result of lack of control: aggression. A cat whose choice and control over their body is restricted is likely to lash out (if they don’t shut down, see above). A cat may be comfortable being carried around the house, but become aggressive when held for a nail trim; the difference might be control. You hold them tighter and resist their attempts to escape when you’re trying to trim their nails and they escalate. The same can be seen if you approach a cat in an enclosed space (like a kennel) versus loose in a large space. Having the choice to move away, even if they don’t, changes their behavior.
Lastly, lack of choice and control can be associated with many health issues. In cats, we typically label these as “stress-related.” Identifying the stressor as lack of control can make it easier to address.
Ways to Give Your Cat Control (Without Losing Your Mind or Your Home)
I hope that you see how having some control is important for your cat. However, please don’t think I’m advocating that you give your cat full control over every part of their life! There are things you do that limit your cat’s life for their safety, such as keeping them indoors, and that’s fine. But, there are things you can do to increase control in your cat’s life and improve their wellbeing.
One easy way to increase your cat’s level of control over their life is to give them choices whenever possible.
Just few ways to offer choices:
You might think of training as getting control over pets, but training through positive reinforcement also gives control back to your cat. By learning that their actions have consequences (getting a treat), cats find they have control over their environment and what happens to them (they can get you to give them that treat).
Training your cat to enjoy and participate in their own care, such as nail trims, will lead to a more trusting relationship. When you promise that you’ll make it worth their while, but that they can walk away whenever they want, your cat will learn to happily stick around.
When You Can’t Give Your Cat Control
As great as control feels, your cat obviously can’t make every decision for themselves. For example, when your cat needs veterinary care immediately, they don’t get to control whether or not they go into the carrier. In these situations, you will do what needs to be done, in the least stressful way possible, and deal with the consequences later.
The main consequence will likely be a stressed-out cat (health issues aside). In an emergency, we consider that mostly okay, if their physical health is protected. But, think of these moments as withdrawals from your cat’s bank account. Every choice they get to make is money in the bank; forced or stressful situations are money out. Your goal is to keep the bank account in the black, by giving more than you have to take away. It will pay off with a happy, healthy, and well-behaved cat.
All of us like to feel in control and our cats are no exception. Giving them choice and control, whenever safe and possible, can improve their behavior, protect their health, and increase their overall wellbeing.
If you would like to learn more about how control, or lack thereof, affects animals, this article takes a deep dive into the topic from the level of professional animal trainers and includes links to many research studies.
If you need help with a stressed cat, want to learn to train your cat to participate in their own care, or otherwise have a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.