Last night I heard a kerfuffle was brewing among online cat fanciers, with some people saying putting your cat in a costume is abuse. Upon further exploration I found two blogs written by people with popular accounts on Instagram that talked about the dangers of dressing your cats in costumes.
My knee-jerk reaction was to mount a vigorous and vocal defense, but reactivity is so 2017. Instead, I read and re-read the blogs, considered their words carefully, reflected on my own knowledge and experience, and conducted my own research.
I want to make it clear from the outset that this is an opinion piece based on my education and work in the field of psychology and my experience as a pet guardian and Cat Behaviorist (you can read more here https://squishdelishcats.com/cat-behavior/).
While there is a large body of theory and research about how cats learn, bond, and develop trust, I was unable to find any research directly related to how putting a cat in a costume relates to these topics.
WHERE WE AGREE
ONE: Most cats are not fans of wearing costumes or dressing up. Part of this is due to the fact that most costumes are not made for cats and may bind them in places that reduce their balance or cut off their visual or auditory acuity. Personality also plays a role as does when and how costumes are introduced to your cat (see more about positive reinforcement and early introduction below).
TWO: If you continue to dress your cats in costumes knowing they are vehemently opposed to it, you risk at the very least a good scratch and possibly considerably more.
THREE: Some cats wear dresses and shirts for health reasons including Feline Hyperesthesia – like Sauerkraut. Other cats may wear clothing to prevent them from pulling out stitches or worrying a wound. Some kitties, just like dogs, wear a harness for their walks. I do not consider these costumes, but they are examples of how cats do great in the right type of clothing.
FOUR: If you feel that cats shouldn’t wear costumes, I support you in your choice to unfollow those that do. I assume that if this is important to you, you are already involved in rescue, fostering, and other animal welfare causes and I applaud you for that. You have a right to voice your opinions and make calls to action as long as they are clearly stated as such. I myself could not find a single study to support the assertion that dressing your cat up would have any lasting, negative consequences and there seemed to be some confusion among those commenting about what was research based fact and what was opinion.
FINDING COMMON GROUND
I identified these two themes in both blogs: 1) The perceived danger of putting stress on your cat, and 2) The risk of corrupting the bond between guardian and cat by humiliating them or infringing on their feline nature. I think both can be avoided by using a little common sense. Simply don’t force a cat who clearly hates dressing up to wear costumes.
Perhaps where we differ is that I trust guardians to know their cats well enough to determine if they truly loathe costumes, are ambivalent about dressing up, don’t mind costumes, or are actually enjoying being decked out.
Here are clear signs your cat hates to dress up:
- They won’t look up and keep their head and tail low.
- You struggle to get them in the costume and then they struggle to get out.
- They hide or try and make themselves small.
- They don’t respond to voice or treat cues while in the costume.
- They act immobilized or fall over.
- They hiss, growl, scratch or run.
- They show other signs of stress, like panting or licking their lips.
While the aforementioned bloggers maintain putting cats into costumes is against their feline nature, cats are highly adaptable. They poop in boxes, live life indoors, and walk on leashes. Your cat sees nothing inherently wrong or shameful about a costume. Once on, they may find a costume uncomfortable or feel uneasy about its interference with one or more of their senses. They will then set a boundary and as their guardian you must respect that boundary.
The key to making the cat-human relationship work is identifying and respecting your cat’s individual boundaries.
This applies in other contexts as well. For example, this means you don’t kiss your cat’s face if they don’t like it, you carry them as little as possible if they prefer to walk, and you may have to resist the urge to pet the exposed, fluffy belly of your cat.
SENSIBLE GUIDELINES FOR CATS IN COSTUMES
I think it might be helpful for the cat community to talk about what sensible guidelines for dressing your cat up might look like. Here are my suggestions, I welcome your input:
Choosing a Costume
- Make sure the costume fits and isn’t too restrictive.
- Favor costumes that have ear holes or don’t cover the ears at all.
- Costumes should not seriously interfere with vision, whiskers or movement of the tail.
- Less is more: Most cats will prefer a tie, cape or fascinator over head to toe costuming, especially to start.
- Keep your cat’s time in costume short and never leave them unattended.
- If your cat is shy, do not make them the center of attention.
- Do not take your cat outdoors in costume unless they are securely leashed or in a suitable enclosure. If your cat is not used to being outside, taking them outside in a costume will prove especially stressful for them.
- Your cat is in charge. If they are not into it, stop.
Reward Early, Reward Often
Training a cat to associate costumes with positive rewards can make dress up time quite enjoyable for all involved. Start young (if you can) and try small elements of a costume like a hat, tie or vest first – rewarding each time. At any sign of discomfort or stress, stop. Your cat will likely be very clear about their preferences. Fergie says yes to bows, fascinators, and crowns and a firm no to everything else.
Check In With Yourself and Your Cat
Are you having fun? Is your cat? You know your cat best, so proceed accordingly. Be sure to look for any signs of stress as outlined above. It’s easy to get carried away creating that perfect social media pic or video and miss that your kitty is no longer enjoying themselves, so make their comfort your number one priority.
It concerns me that the opinions represented in “I have a Confession” were seen as scientifically documented and researched facts. Quoting the opinion of an expert in the field, while valuable is not the same as findings from a well-designed and replicated research study. I am not sure where the breakdown occurred and I’m not pointing fingers. If there is research specific to cats wearing costumes, I would honestly be more than thrilled to read it – and not just because I’m a stats nerd!
I want to end on a high note so I will say that I love being part of this amazing cat community. I hope that we will continue to discuss these issues with open minds knowing we will never agree on everything, but that doesn’t have to mean civil war. It is important that even as we attempt to express our opinions, we also listen and remain open to changing our own minds.
As my kitties are getting older, I am grateful to have the reminder to identify and respect their changing needs and boundaries. This means recycling old pictures of Duffy in costumes, keeping all photo shoots short and positive, and allowing Fergie to step in and out of shoots as she chooses.
⇒⇒⇒Stay tuned for an upcoming blog where we address the controversy surrounding the breeding and purchasing of designer cats.