Apr 3, 2016
Stormy Weather Cats -
Fear and Learning in Cats
One day I was napping peacefully with my cat Rosie beside me when I was abruptly awakened by the sound of hail hitting the roof. Now this being Florida, unless it's a blue moon in winter, when we get hail it means we're in the heart of a very tall, powerful storm. And during storms, if I'm at home, I unplug electronics because I'd rather unplug than replace. So I got up and disconnected my TV and PC. After I was through, I went to the front window to check the weather.
A gray wall of water was cascading from the roof like I'd installed a waterfall feature up there. Instead of falling onto the sidewalk, the waterfall fell into a pond because the front yard and the adjoining front yard were completely underwater in one giant puddle. The torrential rain coming down was making water drops bounce up and the hailstones were making even bigger splashes. I wasn't concerned about flooding as I knew the drainage system had handled worse. What I was was interested. The whole yard was a prestissimo symphony of motion. There was so much movement happening all over the yard, I thought the cats might be interested to watch it. So I called them over. Rosie and Beauty (one of the two other cats) came. I pulled back the curtains on the windows and excitedly pointed out what was happening in the yard. They both took one glance and were totally disinterested. They'd have been more interested if I'd called them over for a snack.
So I went back to my interrupted nap as I knew from the weather that we were supposed to have severe storms for much of the day. When I lay down, I called for Rosie and she immediately jumped up on top of me and stretched out. I gently stroked her and she purred her way off to sleep.
It was then that I recalled a fact that I forget most of the time: Rosie was terrified of storms. Back when Rosie first came here any time there was a storm, even if there was just heavy rain, Rosie would insist on crawling deep under the covers. If I was sleeping I'd feel that insistent nudge which would become a non-stop shoving if I didn't accommodate her immediately. I'd wake up and lift up the covers for Rosie. She'd crawl down next to my legs and would stay there huddled in a tight ball until the storm/rain ended. I'd tried petting her and speaking to her calmingly, but it didn't soothe her. So I decided if being under the covers was what she needed, I'd just let her stay under the covers.
Unfortunately for Rosie the first spring after her arrival we had a lot of rain (and Pensacola is already the second rainiest city in the lower 48 states) and that spring we had a lot of rain even by Pensacola's standards ---- we had record rainfall and flooding. That spring I was also hand-raising two orphaned baby kittens, the aforementioned Beauty and her sister Elf. Now I know that cats are observational-imitative learners. They watch and then they copy. And this worried me when it came to the kittens because the last thing I wanted was for these two babies to pick up Rosie's terror of rain.
When it came to "teaching" the kittens, Rosie had a big advantage ----- she was a cat. It was a natural instinct that they would follow this adult version of themselves. But I had a bigger advantage ------ I was momma. I was the center of the babies' universe. As far as they were concerned, I was the Alpha and the Omega. (It's an attitude that might go to your head if it weren't for the sleep deprivation that accompanies round the clock feedings of orphaned baby kittens.)
I thought about what to do to prevent the kittens from seeing and learning Rosie's fear of rain. What I decided was that when it poured, as it did so often that spring, I would play with the kittens; I would romp with them; I'd pet them and cuddle them and then settle them down for naps when they were tired out. As far as the kittens were concerned we paid no attention to the storms at all. The only exception to that was unpreventable. Occasionally there would be thunder so loud that it would startle everyone, me included. When the thunderclap exploded vibrating the house and its contents, the kittens would flee taking off like two fuzzy bats out of hell; I'd find them, carry them back out to the living room and we'd go back to playing or petting. I did this regularly when the babies were very young so that if they associated rain and storms with anything it would be with positive experiences. By summer as they grew older leaving behind their babyhood and moving into adolescence, when a storm came we would just keep doing whatever we were doing before the storm ---- basically ignoring the storm unless that too loud clap of thunder hit. And that latter behavior is what stuck with the Babies. (I'll always call them "Babies" no matter how old they get.) The kittens grew up to ignore our frequent storms instead of copying Rosie's terror of them.
Now I said that cats are observational-imitative learners. And it turns out that I wasn't just teaching the two babies. The three of us were teaching Rosie. Cowering, buried under the covers, Rosie couldn't see us playing and romping. But she could still hear us. About the time the kittens were entering adolescence, Rosie started to not be so insistent about getting under the covers at the first noise of a downpour. Sometimes she'd stay out for a little while. Gradually her hiding behavior diminished until it became an infrequent event. Sometimes I'd feel an unfamiliar nudging and wake to wonder what was going on. It was only when my mind cleared enough to register the rain and remember that Rosie was afraid of rain would I put the pieces together and lift up the covers for her to crawl under them. And even that behavior faded by the time the kittens reached adulthood.
So I pretty much forgot that Rosie had ever been afraid of the rain.
I had forgotten about it that day when I was awakened by the hail. It wasn't until I lay back down with Rosie comfortably stretched out on top of me that I recalled that Rosie had been afraid of the rain. Here it was with hail pounding down on the roof and Rosie was contentedly purring her way into the dreamworld.
I took a moment, actually I took a lot of moments that day, to think about how remarkable that was. Pets being afraid of thunder and rain is not unusual. And people seem to have a lot of trouble getting them past that. There are thundershirts and soothing sprays and hiding places. And the success rate of getting a companion animal to lose their fear is pretty hit or miss. With Rosie, I wasn't even trying to get her to lose her fear. I just let her stay under the covers and decided if that's what she needed, that's what she could have. Well, it turns out what she really needed was the sounds of me and two baby kittens playing through the storms.
Because cats are observational-imitative learners. And by observing two tiny baby kittens playing and having fun with momma during bad weather, Rosie eventually imitated the kittens in ignoring the bad weather. And proof of that was contentedly cradled in my arm sleeping her way through a hailstorm.
For more on learning, read "Rabbits and Imitation in the Animal Kingdom."
For more on fear in cats there's "Cat Thinking -- The Day My Legs Turned Blue."
For another story about Rosie, Beauty and Elf, check out "Cats, Christmas and Wrapping Presents."
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