D220/P21: Secondhand stress jumps across interspecies boundaries


There was some saying about life giving it’s lessons first and teaching us later. Let me google that:

Not quite what I am looking for. This one is closer perhaps:

Well, whatever. Once in a while you should not depend on a quote when you think you can say it better.

The point is that I observed something from my trips to the vet with my pet cats. Today, when I was reading something unrelated to cats, I realized that what I had observed earlier may be applicable to the current context as well. Let me not get ahead of myself here.

The cat part of the story

We have a couple of cats. Cats are adorable by default so I’ll leave out any redundant adjectives.

While they are quite well behaved at home, they would always be quite a handful on the days when we took them to the vet. They would be visibly stressed out and we simply did not know how to make them feel more comfortable.

We got into a ritual where, I would drive the car while my wife would sit behind with the two cats, a blanket, a bowl of food and a bowl of water to make them feel better. Despite all this, they would scream and pant and scurry about all the way to the vet’s — which is almost an hour long drive depending on the traffic. A trip to the vet would end up being quite stressful for the cats and for us.

About a year ago, we decided to switch roles to see if that helped. Now, my wife drives the car while I sit behind with the cats. I decided to try an experiment (partly out of laziness) and treated the cats as if everything was business-as-usual. No extra blankets, no water and no food. I just held them easy and expected them to behave. And surprisingly enough, they did.

Initially, we thought that I just got lucky with the approach. However, over multiple trips, we see that this works. The cats are relatively relaxed and even at the vet’s, they are just being cats, almost ignoring the shots and the vet and paying more attention to what is in his cupboard.

Since then, I tried this approach even when bathing them. Earlier that would be quite a task too with one of us holding them while the other bathed them … and anyone that has ever had to hold a squirming soaped cat will know how challenging that can be.

These days, I don’t even hold them anymore. I just call them into the bathroom once the water is warm and let them be. Between washing, soaping and washing again, they are free to walk around. Most importantly, I keep as calm as possible during the entire process.

And what do you know? They seem to be quite happy to be bathed this way with none of the fuss and attempts at running amok.

So, I came to the conclusion that cats are not really hyper-intuitive or have any special powers. They get stressed when we are stressed. If we can keep our stress level down, they assume things are normal and behave much better.

The other part of the story

Coming back to this morning, I was reading the following post on medium by Mikael Cho:

In this well written post, among other things, he writes about secondhand stress and “the network effect of stress”. This was something new to me and I decided to read up on it further.

I came across this HBR post from last year which essentially talks about the same phenomenon:

This article also provides some additional numbers such as how we are more susceptible to secondhand stress from a partner (40%) as compared to a stranger (26%).

The “Aha!” moment

Though I read all the material, I wasn’t quite certain that I had experienced secondhand stress, firsthand for myself (pun intended). This is when I remembered my own experiment with my cats and realized that what I had observed there was probably an extrapolation of the same effect.

Almost anyone that has pets does not require studies to corroborate their belief that their pets understand them. But there are studies available nonetheless. Last month I had read about how dogs can understand human emotions.

As a cat owner, my experience is that cats recognize human emotions too. And not just that, they are apparently susceptible to secondhand stress as well.

Now this is a seriously long post about emotions and cats. It would be incomplete without a couple of pictures of the said cats … so here goes:

My Cats on a Sunday morning
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