73: Biofeedback Cat

73: Biofeedback Cat

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Cat

Biofeedback Cat

Fun fact: Studies have shown that people can reduce their chances of a heart attack by having a cat.

Fear-induced aggression. That is what the veterinarian and animal behaviorist called it. Finally, we had a name to describe what could turn my otherwise affectionate cat into a tormented beast.

I first noticed there was a problem when Mindy was a few months old. Arriving home from work, I dropped a bag of groceries and cans crashed to the floor. Mindy, who had met me at the door, now cowered behind the kitchen table. Not thinking too much of it, I reached out a hand to pet and reassure her. The yowl that arose was unlike anything I had ever heard before. I froze. The possibility of being attacked by my own cat was suddenly very real.

I snatched my hand back and quickly retreated. Minutes later, I was making supper when a long tail looking like a bottlebrush appeared in the doorway. I backed away cautiously, but my fears were unfounded. The little cat started purring and rubbing her silver-gray head against my ankles.

I was puzzled but pleased at the change in her attitude. Later I sat down at my piano, and as the music filled the house, Mindy stretched her little body, no longer arched in defence, and closed her eyes. We ended the evening on a happy note.

As weeks went by, I observed her more carefully and discovered that she over-reacted to sudden noises and movements. Simple things, like dropping the TV remote or someone knocking loudly on the door, would bring on a reaction of the now-familiar threatening growls. These often escalated to bloodcurdling yowls, which could make the hairs on a person’s neck stand up.

Contradictory as it may sound, Mindy was affectionate and tolerant between such episodes. She’d calmly sprawl on her back while I clipped her nails. She loved baths and enjoyed the hair dryer afterward. She was fond of riding in the car, and we travelled many miles together.

As I started to piece together this tangled web of Mindy’s psyche, I realized that my pet often reacted to my own stress level: my frustration and anger when I dropped the groceries, my startled reaction to an unexpected knock on the door. I realized that I had to find a way to deal with rude drivers and work stress before I got home, because Mindy would tune in to my own emotions. If I was sad or feeling discouraged, she would jump on my lap and pat my face with that big, fluffy paw as if to console me. And on the days when I did not want to be bothered, she’d lie at a distance and respect my need for space.

I turned to the Internet for information to understand my cat better and was soon participating in a study led by a group of researchers in the United States. The result? The relationship between Mindy and me was a classic example of “twinship.” The research paper said, “In the study, twinship was represented in animals described as being very adept at reading body language and external cues, along with being very focused on their human companions. Therefore, it would often seem like they were capable of being able to ‘read minds.’ ”

Other cats I had owned over the years seemed oblivious to the fact when I was working on something and did not need, or want, a cat sprawled on my papers. But Mindy always knew. Whether she read my mind or discerned my body language matters little. What mattered was that she was an extremely perceptive cat with extremely poor coping skills.

And I was to make another discovery. When I played the piano, Mindy would often wander out from her latest favorite spot to sleep and lie near me. I noticed that her tail would gently flick in time to the music — my personal metronome. I was not a good player by any stretch, and Mindy had an aversion to my incorrect notes. When I made a mistake, her tail swishing increased in a rapid, agitated manner that had no musical timing. At first, I assumed it was my imagination, but even my piano teacher reached a point where she just shook her head in disbelief and admitted that it was too predictable to be merely coincidental.

One year, I was preparing for Christmas, and in my haste to decorate my tree, I knocked over a vase while grabbing a box of ornaments, which clattered on the tiled hearth of the fireplace. The noise startled Mindy, and she took her predictable pose — arching her back and swaying on her hind legs. Growling and hissing followed as she was focused on me, the enemy. I was tired and frustrated. I had invited friends over for drinks, and I did not have time for this! Somehow, I managed to remind myself that it was Christmas, and if I should ever have tolerance, it should be now.

I sat down on the piano bench to play some Christmas carols. I fumbled through a couple of songs and then settled on “Away in a Manager.” By the third verse of the song, Mindy was lying by the piano, swishing her tail gently, and a feeling of calmness descended. Then it hit me: Mindy not only liked piano music; it had a soothing effect on her. A more profound revelation was that it had a calming effect on me, as well. From that point forward, I found I could avert her aggression or rapidly bring it to a close by playing the piano. “Away in a Manger” had a particularly consoling effect on Mindy. Fortunately, the carol was easy to play, and I played it almost perfectly. Since she seemed quite conscious of the errors in my playing, the smooth flow was probably the biggest factor in her serenity. But whatever the reason, it became “our song.”

My relationship with Mindy spanned more than eighteen years. They were not easy years, and there were plenty of ups and downs. But I learned so much about myself from that cat. She became my stress barometer. I could assess my own stress level by Mindy’s reaction. She taught me to leave my cares outside, and that sometimes, “Away in a Manger” played in July is just what a person (and a cat) needs.

~Brenda Leppington

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