Stress: Are You a Prisoner?

A few nights ago I noticed my cat seemed to be scratching an awful lot in the same place on her neck. I didn't think much about it until a few hours later while I was playing with her and she stopped to scratch the spot again. A little tuft of fur flew out. When I checked the side of her neck I found that she was bleeding because she had scratched the area raw.

Suspecting her itchiness was caused by an allergy to a new food we were trying with her, the next morning I went to see the veterinarian to pick up an E collar (also known as the cone of shame) and to get his thoughts on what might be causing the problem. He suggested we stop the new food for a few days and see if it helped. He said that if stopping the new food didn't work, the scratching could be caused by stress.

Stress did not seem like the answer. I thought to myself, what does my cat have to be stressed out about? She never has to seek out warm places to sleep because she's an indoor cat living in a nice, warm, spacious house with lots of comfy places to sleep. She never has to find food because she gets fed healthy food each day, we clean her box regularly and make time to play with her every night. She has her cat perch placed next to the window where she can see the ravens playing with each other outside and watch the cars go by. I mean, the dog is a bit of a hyperactive pain sometimes, but all that aside, what's to be stressed about?

I asked the vet about what kinds of things cause cats to be stressed. He told me that cats have only been domesticated a short time compared to dogs. Dogs have evolved to live with humans, and cat's haven't.  Cats develop stress-related illnesses because when we bring them into our homes to live with us, we are making them live in a way that is not true to their nature. We are not letting our cats be cats.

He explained that feral cats live outdoors and establish large territories. They eat what they hunt, they get to scratch where they please, they are able to climb to high places and use the bathroom where they feel safe. When we humans then force a cat to be an indoor animal, we give it only a very small, restricted territory and it doesn't get to act on its instinct to hunt. The diet that many of us feed our cats is no way the same as the mice and birds it would naturally eat if it lived outdoors, so digestive issues and bladder problems develop. Our indoor cats aren't free to scratch the sofa at will, and climbing up on top of the refrigerator is poor substitute for a tall tree, so behaviour problems enter the mix. Then there's the fact that an indoor cat only has one place to go to the bathroom and can't clean it when it gets dirty. Outside, a cat would just find a different place to do its business each time, but indoors, our cats are dependent on us to clean their bathrooms. When we don't do it often enough, they seek out different places to go, most likely where we humans would rather they didn't. Our cats can get stressed and sick because we are asking them to live in a way that is not true to their nature.

The same is true for us people. When we act in ways that are contrary to our true selves we get stressed and sick too. All too often we do the things we do because we believe that we have to. Unlike cats, we humans are capable of suppressing our true nature and our true selves by justifying our behaviour through our own thoughts and deeply held beliefs:

  • If I don't do it, no one will.
  • What would they think if I....
  • I have to do it, he/she needs my help. 
  • Blood is thicker than water.
  • Always help others before helping yourself.
  • I'm the only one who knows how.
  • I have no choice, there's no other way. 
  • I am Responsible.

We attribute our physical and mental health problems to stress. The stress is real, it's the cause that is imagined. We unconsciously build invisible thought-prisons around ourselves each day, and our stress comes from buying into the belief that we are trapped inside. When we start to tell ourselves that we actually do have choices we can choose whether or not we want to do something based on what is right for us. When we challenge our thoughts and our negative beliefs, we rattle the cage. We begin to see glimpses of the freedom that comes from knowing ourselves and doing what we know is right for us instead of what we believe in our minds is right for us. And if we persist in challenging that which we know at our deepest being is false, we start to find there are more days without bars than with. And then we realize: we're free to leave anytime we want. Because now we know that the bars aren't there. They never were to begin with.

No cats were harmed in the making of this blog post.