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The Cat’s Pajamas

Janet Velenovsky, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP

Using Wearable Products to Support Behavior Change in Cats

once had a gorgeous, beloved grey kitty who was a storm-predictor. Before my husband or I ever heard thunder or saw lightning, Geoffrey would slink under the ottoman in the den. We never observed that behavior without a storm following. None of the other four felines in the household showed this behavior. Thankfully, Geoffrey remained quietly in his hiding spot, and recovered quickly once the storms passed. But it was obviously distressing enough to make him want to hide. Wish I had known then what I know now. Many owners may not realize how stressful situations or stimuli like thunderstorms and fireworks are to their cats because the “slink away to hide” and/or “shut down” responses are more common in cats than more overt behavioral responses from dogs: attention-seeking from the owners, barking, whining, or other vocalizations, and frantic attempts to escape from crates or the home. While many cats are frightened by novel or significant stimuli, my experience in dealing with cat behavior doesn’t include many cases where extreme reactions to thunderstorms were a main complaint. I am not aware of nearly as many cases where thunderstorms specifically lead to self-injury or escape by cats as we find with dogs. Other anxiety-related problems, such as separation distress, do exist in cats, but are possibly under-reported because most people are not aware that cats can suffer from anxiety as canines do. Because they do not recognize or understand the problem in felines, few owners or trainers are likely to seek out products or techniques to address it. In addition, because there are fewer studies in print, veterinarians may be less likely to ask about


potential anxiety issues, or to recommend products to alleviate the problem.1 Many dog trainers are familiar with the use of compression wraps, sight barriers, and special harnesses to aid in management and stress reduction in canines. Those trainers and cat guardians, too, might be surprised to learn similar products and techniques can be beneficial for cats. These products are designed to aid management, and/or support relaxation for felines during stressful periods, such as weather-related fear, vet visits, grooming and other handling, giving medication, or introductions to new people or animals.

Clothing for Cats? Really?
One of the challenges of any “clothing” for cats is the apparent strangeness of the experience to the cat. Most tend to slink, freeze, or crouch at first when anything is placed over their backs. Owner perception of this response could be favorable (as in, the cat seems to “relax” in place) or unfavorable (believing the cat “hates it”). Education for owners on reading the cat’s body language (positions of ears and whiskers, movement of tail, status of pupils) is important (in addition to the The Chronicle article mentioned in the sidebar to the left, this PDF provides useful information about body language: pdf ). Strategic counter-conditioning works well for many cats but, with some, the pace can require incredible patience. Understanding subtleties in body language will allow a trainer to progress as the cat can accept it, without pushing too quickly. Today’s housecats often suffer from a lack of proper socialization, which makes introducing new situations and novel stimuli challenging. Similar to dogs, there is a feline “early learning window” during which kittens learn to accept handling and other stimuli. In felines, it occurs from about two weeks old to seven weeks old. 2,3 Many cats do not get to their adoptive families until after that window closes, nor do most families recognize how critical this socialization period is for cats, which means those families must use patience and care in desensitizing cats to wearable behavior products. A young cat who has spent months in a shelter cage has missed opportunities to learn about her world and will need help to catch up.

Experienced dog trainers interested in supporting this other familiar species in the household have a great start on skills they need to work with cats. Clearly, cats have characteristics that set them apart from dogs. Their physiology and body language require additional study for trainers who are only used to working with canines (see Jacqueline Munera’s article on feline body language in the May/ June 2011 issue of The Chronicle). But the good news is that behavior science and the four quadrants work on cats just as they do for dogs, dolphins, horses, and zebras. Furthermore, a dog trainer’s experience with observation, desensitization and counterconditioning, and clicker training can all be applied to felines as well.

Cat Anxiety Paradox
We know cats come in different coat lengths and lots of colors. Their personalities and responses to things also vary widely. A cat’s response to wearable products will
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The Cat’s Pajamas: Using Wearable Products to Support Behavior Change in Cats

depend upon his or her willingness to interact with new things, and ability to accept the handling and sensations involved. Nervous, shy cats will require a more careful approach but often show a significant improvement when wearing a product designed to reduce anxiety. Cats who do not enjoy handling may be difficult to get products on without careful desensitization and counter-conditioning. The paradox is that confident, interactive cats may accept the products more quickly, but may need them less.

Thundershirt™ for Cats
Veterinary technicians often use (and recommend using) a towel to wrap (swaddle) a cat for pilling, examinations (especially for checking eyes and ears), and/or (with one leg outside of the wrap) for blood draws or nail trims. Working with a towel to create the snug enclosure needed to produce a calming, swaddling effect requires practice, dexterity, and skill.4 Many owners will not take the time to learn the proper technique to accomplish this. After the great success of the dog version and requests for more products, the Thundershirt folks decided to adapt the product for cats as well. The product was altered for the dimensions of the feline body, as well as creating appropriate sizes and unique fitting and use instructions. (

Calming Cap™
You may be familiar with the Calming Cap, a clever invention of Trish King. It works by covering the eyes with a single ply of soft, stretchy fabric which reduces, but doesn’t eliminate, visual stimulus. This means “scary” sights may become less alarming, and the wearer less anxious. The Calming Cap is now being manufactured by Thundershirt as well. Multiple veterinarians have reported the Calming Cap allows them to get lower resting heart rates or blood pressure readings on their patients, from cats and dogs to rabbits and raptors. Many use them to keep surgical patients quiet during recovery or reduce anxiety while performing blood draws, grooming services, or other interactions.

Harnessing Cat Power
Restraint harnesses like the Come With Me Kitty® or cat walking jackets can be helpful in managing cats during grooming and medical procedures, and during

introductions between new and established pets. They provide the owner the ability to keep cats safe, but may not offer the same calming effects of swaddling or reducing visual stimuli. How do I get started with putting clothing on a cat? Start by pairing good things with the appearance of the Thundershirt, Calming Cap, or harness. If you are consistent — bringing out the product and then providing a yummy treat, or favorite item or experience — the cat quickly learns that the clothing predicts good things! (Sound familiar? These processes work with cats, too.) Most cats do not have the experience of wearing much more than a collar, if that. The first tools you need for getting a cat acclimated to a wearable product are patience, a quiet room, and several things the cat likes. You can use a favorite toy, an especially yummy treat or spoonful of wet cat food, brushing or stroking (if the cat really likes that), a comfy bed or pad, or any other favorite item(s). It may be a good idea to have a few options, and to start with a hungry cat. For cats who are very spooky about new things, you may wish to lay the product on a favorite perch or snoozing spot for a while so they can approach it at their own pace. The Thundershirt, for instance, is made of very soft fabric; many cats are drawn to lying on it when it is set out. Owners could make the product more attractive to their cat by “wearing” it themselves for while, tucked into a shirt, or wrapped around their necks. For cats wellbonded to their owners, this can make the products seem familiar and attractive. When everyone is settled and calm, try presenting the product(s) for the cat to sniff. For the Thundershirt, open the product to make it flat, rolling the outer flap with hook and eye closures under so it doesn’t catch on the other flap. Approaching the cat from the rear, lay it softly across the back. Use a soothing voice and never scold the cat while working. If the cat is willing to stick around, be generous with treats or other rewards. Start by closing the longer flaps around the cat’s neck. Then wrap the first flaps around the cat’s belly, making it snug. The last flap can then be unrolled to secure the fit. Realize that very nervous cats might be startled by the sounds of hook and loop closures, plastic buckles, or

Coral, resident of the Richmond SPCA, wearing the Thundershirt. Usually a swatter and a biter, she offered facial rubbing and accepted handling while displaying relaxed body language.
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A recent arrival to the shelter, Ginger was hiding under her bed when we approached her kennel. Once the Thundershirt was on, she laid on the counter, accepting petting and stretching out.

metal snaps. You can work through this by creating the sound at a distance from your cat and then presenting a treat. Work your way closer and/or make the noise louder step by step. When your cat doesn’t respond negatively to the sound, you are ready to move forward. Is it absolutely necessary to start this way? Why not just get the product on the cat right away? For very confident cats, or cats with experience in wearing harnesses or other “clothing,” you may be able to skip ahead quickly. The more nervous, skittish, or reluctant your cat is, the more he or she will benefit from the association of the product with wonderful things and from working bit by bit. Trainers or owners who are skilled at using markers and/ or clicker training may find those techniques helpful in rewarding the cat for acceptance of the handling and the products. Markers could also be used to reward the cat for being willing to walk and play while wearing the products. If you can, schedule time to work with your cat in several sessions over a week. It is not necessary for the sessions to be very long — five minutes at a time may be enough. Watch your cat for signs of acceptance or even enthusiasm for the fun of the favorite things you are pairing with the product. These signs might include rubbing his or her face on the product or on you while holding it, rolling over to show his or her belly, or lightly pawing at the product in a playful way. What if there’s no time to spare? While this slow and rewarding process is optimal, the benefits of these products can be achieved even with a shorter fitting process. This is especially true for cats in a new home, or in a shelter or other situations where the relationship between an owner and a cat is not yet established. In multiple trials with the Thundershirt at the Richmond SPCA, shelter cats known to respond to handling with hissing and/or biting were fitted with the product and observed by shelter staff. In the majority of cases, the staff reported the cats were easier to handle and responded to head and ear stroking with face-rubbing and purring. Many cats will find the swaddling effect of the Thundershirt and/or the reduction of visual stimuli when wearing a Calming Cap to be calming regardless of the introduction process. If you are in an emergency situation, or in a hurry to utilize the product, you will still want to set your cat and yourself up for success. Make sure to manage the space you are working in to remove distractions (like other pets, kids, blaring television, etc.) and help your cat feel safe. Keep each trial short. The cat doesn’t seem to be able to or want to move once the clothing is on. Why? We lightheartedly refer to this response as the “freeze and flop.” Certainly, for cats who have never experienced something wrapped fully around their bodies, the sensation is unusual. Many cats freeze while they analyze the situation, and some “flop” over to one side because they haven’t yet learned how to move with the clothing on. (Anyone remember their first snow day as a child? Lots of layers of clothing — or being waist-high in snow — may have left you with similar feelings.)

For the Thundershirt, you can experiment with the snugness of the hook and loop fasteners and how that might affect your cat’s perception of moving in the Thundershirt. A snugger fit increases the swaddling effect, but you can work your way up to that. More confident cats try to explore moving in the clothing right away; many careful or cautious felines just “meatloaf,” tucking paws in and remaining in one place. This can have a desired effect when you want to clean ears, give medications, or place the cat into a crate for a vet visit. Is there any downside to this stationary response? It is not recommended to leave the cat unsupervised until you know how he or she responds to wearing any of these products. You just need to support your cat’s learning process and keep his or her experiences happy ones. While all of these products are designed to avoid covering the genital region, there could be complications for tidy elimination in the litter box if the cat is not yet moving normally. Also, using them with dogs in the home will require either separation or constant supervision to be sure none of the products prevent a cat from escaping predatory behaviors from dogs. For the same reasons, indoor/outdoor cats shouldn’t wear these outside unless or until they can move normally in them. How long can my cat wear any of these devices? As with most behavior modification tools, you should give your cat regular breaks from using the product, especially to use the litter box. Depending upon the circumstance, some very stressed cats may sleep better with a Thundershirt or Calming Cap on; most need time without wearing it for adequate resting periods. How might I use these products to facilitate new pet introductions? Successful pet introductions require careful planning and execution to get the new relationships off to the best possible start. You can find lots of good information at websites like these: • Introducing-Your-Cat-to-a-New-Cat.aspx • introductions_.pdf For pets who tend to be nervous about new things in their lives, these products can be a valuable way to help them stay calm and not become aroused about the new housemate. Whether doing cat/cat introductions or cat/dog, you can utilize them to reduce physiological stress responses. Things to keep in mind: (1) acclimate the pets to the products well before introductions so they have already accepted the product(s) as a good thing, (2) keep the first few intros short and all interactions happy, and (3) make sure everyone can stay safe and “retreat” whenever they want to. Dogs should generally be restrained (by leash or baby gates) to avoid chasing. How can these products help a cat get better veterinary care? Feline veterinarians often express concerns about a lack of regular veterinary care for many cats due to the stress
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The Cat’s Pajamas: Using Wearable Products to Support Behavior Change in Cats

The Cat’s Pajamas: Using Wearable Products to Support Behavior Change in Cats

Some alarming statistics from the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP): • 60 percent of cat owners report that their cat hates going to the veterinarian. • Almost twice as many cats as dogs never visit the veterinarian. • Of the cats who do visit the veterinarian, they average 26 percent fewer visits than dogs. • 39 percent of cat owners say they would only take their cat to the veterinarian if the cat was sick. • 38 percent of cat owners report that they get stressed just thinking about bringing their cat to the practice. owners and cats experience from it. Some cats who do visit the vet clinic still don’t get optimal examinations or most accurate readings of heart rate and blood pressure because of the cats’ responses to the stress of car rides and waiting rooms. Owners and cats who experience reduced vocalization and anxiety in the car, lowered heart rates, and easier handling by veterinary staff will find themselves quicker to access vet care when needed. Yes, less stress during vet visits is better for cats and people alike.

Griffin has previously shown extreme stress during transport to and handling during veterinary exams. With the Thundershirt on, Griffin’s heart rate was reduced and he tolerated veterinary procedures much more easily. Once at the clinic, the tech and I found it easier to get a weight for Griffin with the Thundershirt on than we usually do. Dr. Sue Atkins, veterinarian to me and Griffin for over 10 years, was very impressed to be able to get a more accurate heart rate from Griffin than usual. Dr. Atkins usually estimates from the rapid-fire beats a rate of over 210. While Griffin was wearing the Thundershirt, Dr. Atkins was able to announce a heart rate of 150, and let me know she could hear Griffin’s grade II-III heart murmur more clearly than she has since he was young. Dr. Atkins and the tech took Griffin to the back of the clinic to draw blood for his thyroid test. Typically, blood must be drawn from his neck or from a back leg because Griffin will not allow them to handle his front legs. He withdraws them and tends to bite or kick to be released. In his Thundershirt, Griffin allowed them to take blood from the front leg, and reported he was at least 50 percent easier to handle. I was able to snap a photo of Griffin on the table doing something I had never seen before. He rested his chin on the table and (almost) looked content. This one visit made me realize the potential effect for getting regular veterinary care for more cats. After Griffin and I returned home (with no vocalizations on the way home), he was released from the travel crate and did not dash away to hide under furniture for hours, as he usually does. Griffin interacted happily with me within minutes of his release from the carrier, and showed none of his usual post-trip stress behaviors (hissing, running away, hiding, or skipping meals). The Thundershirt will be standard equipment for Griffin for all future trips to the vet.
1 Separation anxiety syndrome in cats: 136 cases (1991-2000) Stephanie Schwartz, DVM, MSc, DACVB JAVMA Vol. 220, No. 7, April 1, 2002 2 Beaver, Bonnie V., Feline Behavior, 2nd Edition; Saunders, 2003. Ppg. 137-138. 3 Feline Behavior Guidelines, American Association of Feline Practitioners, 2004. Pg. 10. 4 Yin, Sophia, DVM, MS, Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats, Cattledog Publishing, 2009. Ppg. 253-266. Janet Velenovsky, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP, is a graduate of Purdue University’s 2004 DOGS course, and holds a Counseling Certificate from the San Francisco SPCA’s Academy for Dog Trainers. She is a past president of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and the current chair of its Working Animals division. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) and Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC) with IAABC. In addition to living and working with four wonderful dogs, Janet has a special interest in both finding ways to enrich the lives of indoor cats and in helping people understand the enigmatic feline.

Case History: My Guy Griffin
Griffin is a 12 year-old neutered male cat who weighs about 10 pounds. He is the last of a clowder of five, and prior to the death of our calico female last spring, Griffin had never experienced a household without other cats. Always shy of strangers and anxious during car rides, Griffin became reclusive and absolutely terrified of being handled. This situation has become worse lately because of a diagnosis of hyperthyroidism, which requires daily application of medication and multiple trips to the clinic while we attempted to get the dosage of medication correct. It takes a half hour to drive to our vet clinic. Those 30 minutes are extremely stressful for me as his owner. As a cat behavior consultant, I am aware of the potential for additional medical issues from the stress hormones being repeatedly dumped into his system during these rides. During the trip Griffin typically vocalizes a couple of times per minute. On the exam table at the vet office moisture can be seen from his paw pads, and he sheds excessively. These are typical signs of stress in a cat. He has often urinated in the crate during transport. To mitigate his stress, I’ve tried Feliway® spray, lavender oil, and Rescue Remedy®, none of which had any discernible effect. On the day of his next appointment for a blood draw, I put the Thundershirt on Griffin just moments prior to putting him in a travel crate and into the car. He typically panics when I put him in the crate; there was no difference this time. However, Griffin only vocalized for the first two minutes of our car ride. After our first couple of minutes, he quieted. In fact, he was so quiet that I literally stopped the car at one point to make sure he was breathing. Knowing he was okay, we proceeded; this represented a 90 percent reduction in vocalization during transport.
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