Why I decided to stop dressing up my cats
Dressing up cats. A much debated topic during the weeks leading up to Halloween. In the midst of this somewhat heated discussion, two questions came to mind: “Is it worth it?” and “What do I know?”
I wanted to start this blog by telling you about the time I had to wear a warthog costume, the local zoo’s mascot, but I’ll get to that later. I don’t want to get off the wrong foot and start with a negative note. Not because I’m scared you’ll stop reading, because you’re fed up with the matter – but because I’m all for nuance. I don’t mind costumes that serve a medical purpose. I don’t mind harnesses or even bow ties or small accessories. This post won’t be about what happens to a cat on a psychological or physical level when you dress him or her up. I’m not a vet, cat behaviourist or biologist. I am not a cat. I am just someone who loves cats. And as a human who coexists with another species, I feel a responsibility to check myself and the decisions I make for my cats.
Is it worth it?
By wondering if it’s worth it, I am not questioning if starting the discussion is worth the potential conflict it might create. I question the actual value it adds to your and your cat’s life and if that value outweighs the potential negative effects. I try to be conscious of the things I do, because I don’t like being out of control. Meaning, not being able to explain my reasonings behind my actions, simply because there were none. This comes with a stipulation: if I choose to be conscious of my actions, I also have to be open to changing my opinion based on new input (experiences, opinions, scientific information). It would be unreasonable to simply stick to my beliefs. I don’t have the moral high ground; I don’t believe anyone has. That being said: in order to justify my own behaviour (first and foremost to myself) I try to ask myself: do my actions serve a purpose and does that purpose have merit? Is it necessary? I can apply this to most situations, ranging from every day choices to morally heavy loaded ones – Should I buy this dress? Should I get a car? Should I eat meat? Should I get up when my cat is pawing my face at 4 am? (Just kidding.) Should I dress my cat up? – making it a nice guideline if you’re in need of clarity. Of course, necessity is a sliding scale. Hold that thought.
What do I know?
Growing up, people have often told me: if you’re in doubt, don’t do it. So, if you’re not entirely sure your cat likes the clothing or accessories, maybe you shouldn’t do it to begin with. I tend to believe I know my cats best. Better than some stranger on the internet or a cat behaviourist. Because we’ve all learned there are always exceptions to the rule, and we like to believe that when our empirical observations don’t match up with what others say, it means we – or in this case our cats – are the exception to the rule. But what do I know? In the introduction of this post, I wrote “I am not a cat”, which sounds like a silly thing to say, stating the obvious. But I believe this to be something we tend to forget, because we are so submerged in our personal relationship with our cat. I could pride myself in being able to mentally channel my cats’ thoughts, wants and needs. Instead I want to be weary of turning my perception into a fact.
It’s undeniably true that cats aren’t able to talk the way we, humans, can. (This goes both ways. I believe I’m great at speaking cat, but it’s probably all gibberish if cats even recognize my gargling sounds as the song of their people to begin with.) It’s often a mystery to me how people appear to seemingly smoothly make their way through everyday interaction with others. What I learnt from trying to make sense of the world around me is that though humans are very predictable, they are also very inconsistent. They often say things between the lines or have their actions not match up with what they proclaim. A lot is lost in translation. Cats and other non-human animals are, arguably, easier to read. They aren’t clouded by motivations that serve goals like having a sense of identity, gaining material wealth or ‘changing’ the world. As far as we know, animals aren’t aware of such concepts as “the world” or “the meaning of life”.
But when it comes to reading animals, we have to acknowledge one thing: we can study them all we want, we can form close bonds with them, but we can never completely know what’s going on in their heads. We need to admit that being a human makes us bound to the features of our species and thus limited. And consequently, we may not fill in ‘the gaps’ by projecting our knowledge of humans onto an animal. We may very well be unaware of signals of discontent, pain or happiness an animal is giving off, despite our best intentions and efforts. I believe the chances of misreading our cats, no matter how well we know them or how many literature we have read, are still high.
There’s much to be said about whether or not dressing up your cat is harmful to them. I firmly believe that most cat ‘owners’ would never ever knowingly inflict damage on their cat. However, we are in the unfortunate position that we as humans, somehow ended up at the top of the food chain, ‘ruling’ the animal kingdom. “With great power comes great responsibility.” I’d say, with great consciousness… We get to decide what happens to our pets. We decided for them to live with us in the first place; they didn’t get an active say in this arrangement, nor can they decide to “break up” with us. We owe it to them to take every decision that concerns them wisely, which I admit isn’t an easy task at all. Enter: necessity.
Is it necessary?
I try to ask myself if the things I do with or to my cats are necessary. Some of those are pretty obvious: giving them medical care, providing food and water, a roof over their head. Then we enter a dangerous territory, the things we can argue about. Keeping cats indoors or outdoors, having a single cat or multiple cat household, feeding a certain diet. Even more precarious: what if the things we choose to do with them, benefit us more? My cats don’t give a rat’s ass if they get to 20K followers and have pretty pictures of themselves. So where do you draw the line? As humans we are always testing our limitations and boundaries. Is it fair to our cats that we test their boundaries too?
You could argue that domesticating cats and controlling their lives isn’t even fair to begin with, but I see it as our duty to make their life as enjoyable and happy as possible. My policy is: the less fuss the better. So, if I would condition my kitten that wearing a cute outfit for a photoshoot comes with treats and positive attention, he might start to enjoy the process after a while. What happens when I take away the costume, keeping everything else as is? He’ll still get treats and my attention. The outfit isn’t necessary to have some bonding time. It doesn’t add anything to my kitten’s benefit. It’s even better since no conditioning is needed. No concerns if he’ll like this or that outfit, how far I can take it without him being bothered.
I don’t believe any cat will actually like the costume itself, the way we like wearing nice clothes. To say the cat likes it, is to say it likes the things it comes with: treats, cuddles, playtime, positive attention. A cat might start to associate the costume with positive things, but I don’t believe the cat will actually like how wearing it makes him or her feel. It won’t yearn for the way it feels on their skin or fur, how it feels on the cat’s ears or tail. The cat won’t prefer wearing a costume over not wearing it. When the costume does not come with any positive attention, it won’t benefit most cats at all, unless there’s a medical need for it.
Is it fair?
If something only benefits one party involved, while the other party doesn’t have an equal say in it – by equal I mean to be of equal mind and knowledge – is it fair? If it is not necessary for either party, why do it? If an animal may potentially be in distress that goes unnoticed: why risk it? So the internet can marvel over it? So you can think: “how cute!” and melt a little inside? There are other ways. Appreciate cats for what they are. Beautiful house tigers that bring grace and joy to our lives. Leave them be and take photos and videos of what is presented to you. And if you do want to do a themed photo shoot, work with props. Build a nice and safe set: an interesting playground for them and a nice backdrop for your photography. Be open to a lifetime of building trust and understanding. Think about how extraordinary it is that we get to spend our lives with another species. A species that will give us the unconditional love humans often aren’t capable of, if only we provide a happy and safe environment for them.
I put Kafka in a peacock costume and thought he looked “proud”. I put a Santa hat on him and even made him “voice” his discontent in the caption. I tried putting a hat and sunglasses on Anakin. Now I wonder: Why? For my own amusement? Because Kafka – besides that Santa hat – never seemed to mind his outfits? Any answer I can come up with, does not justify the means. I’m thinking about that warthog costume I once had to wear at my summer job at the zoo while I was in high school. I was hot and sweaty, my senses were impaired, and during the whole time wearing it I kept reminding myself that it was worth the money. That day I got fired because, mid-day, I ended up taking the mask off. And now I’m making that decision for my cats. No more costumes.
Would you like to read more on this subject? Check out these three blog posts I found very insightful:
- http://xafiandauri.com/post/dont-dress-up-cats – This blog by the human behind the Instagram account @xafiandauri.
- https://thelondoncatbehaviourist.home.blog/2018/10/19/i-have-a-confession/ – This post by London cat behaviourist Marjan Debevere that points out more specific reasons why cats shouldn’t wear costumes.
- https://squishdelishcats.com/cat-costume-debate/ – This blog by LA cat behaviourist Ruth, with some practical guidelines.