Monday, November 16, 2015

Are Millennials Changing Our Relationship with Cats? #spon

As I mentioned last Sunday, I attended Purina's Better With Pets Summit in early November.

The most interesting moments for me were the two discussion panels. Here are my notes from the one on Millennial cat owners. I thought it was interesting stuff. I hope you enjoy.

The discussion panel was made up of Dr. Hal Herzog, moderator; Sandra Lyn, Purina Behaviorist; Christina Ha, co-founder NYC's Meow Parlour Cat Café and Mikel Delgado, Cat Behaviorist & researcher.
Cats & Millennials: moderator Hal Herzog Ph.D., Sandra Lyn & Mikel Delgado behaviorists
& Christina Ha, NYC Cat Café. Photo copyright ©2015 Nesté Purina. Used with permission.

"Are Millennials changing
  our relationship with cats?"

The panel was moderated by Dr. Hal Herzog, a professor of psychology whose research focuses on human-animal interactions.

The panelists included Purina Behaviorist Sandra Lyn; Christina Ha, co-founder of NYC's first permanent Cat Café, Meow Parlour; and Mikel Delgado, a cat behaviorist and Ph.D. candidate at UC-Berkeley.

Dr. Herzog began by stating that cats are particularly popular as pets among Millennials, with 33% owning one. In fact, Millennials will soon be the largest segment of the population owning cats.

One thing to note, he said, was that expectations are greater among Millennials, because they are hyper-social. (Hyper-social is that always-connected state of being, through mobile devices and on social media.)

Millennial with cat. Photo by depositphotos.

Millennials as a generation have higher expectations on everything - that's the lens through which they live their lives. Google the words "Millenial expectations" and you'll get more than 800,000 results - studies with headlines like "Millennials: a Generation with Unrealistic Expectations." (ouch! harsh, dude!)

The panel's point was that this trait can have an impact on a Millennial's relationship with a cat, too.

Millennials and their
expectations of cats

Christina Ha described how Millennials react to cats when they first enter the café. "Millennials have a lot of expectations, they think cats will immediately come running up to you when you come in. They're more impatient about wanting gratification. On the flip side, if they fall in love, they fall in love very hard and very fast." 

"We spend a lot of time talking to customers about their own cats. People love sharing their stories about their cats, and surprisingly some of them aren't what we would consider to be a cat person."

Huh? Then why are they in a cat café?
Here's what she meant by that.

"You can usually tell if someone's a cat person [by their actions]. If they come in, pick up a cat toy and start poking a cat with it…? Not a cat person. We’ll then ask them, 'hey, do you like being poked by something???'"

Then the lightbulb goes off.

She spends a lot of time explaining things to these cat owners who aren't really cat people yet.
Things like:
"A real cat person can [come in and] soon be covered in cats.
That's because they don't make eye contact with cats. They let the cats come to them."
"No two cats are the same. Have expectations of your cat that are realistic.
And accept him for who he is."

Their reaction?  "OMIGOD, I've been playing with my cat wrong for years!"

About that internet
cat phenomenon

So are the ever-connected, hyper-social Millennials the only generation that benefits from the internet cat phenomenon?

Herzog says no. Regardless of age, with cat videos "even if you don't own a cat you still benefit from cats in your life." Sandra Lyn agreed. "When we get upset and go into a corner and turn on YouTube to watch cat videos, we feel better," she said. No argument there.

Social media may be changing what defines a cat person, too.

Mikel Delgado believes one reason cat videos have such internet appeal is because cats are a little harder to read than dogs. "We can kind of try to fill in the blanks of what's going on in their mind," she said.

There's a stereotype that cat people tend to be less extroverted than dog people, but her "fill in the blanks" observation implies that a 'cat person' could be defined as anyone drawn to the subtlety of cats' behavior.

Anyone wanna guess what's going on in his mind?

 The Cat-Human Relationship

It isn't just about what we get out of it, Sandra Lyn warned.
It's about what the cat gets out of this. Both parties need to benefit.

She went on to say that there is still a lot of opportunity to do research around cat cognition and social behavior. And there is room for a lot of education on what we do know.

That's when they launched into the real meat of their discussion:
What conventional wisdom do we need to overturn, what attitudes need to change in order to make cats' lives better?

The most important thing to understand about cats is they're not small humans. They have species-specific needs. They are predators but they are also prey, so they need to feel safe.

Let me repeat that: They are predators but they are also prey.

We need to see things from our cats' point of view. To them, we are the predator. We are so much bigger. We are apex. In their minds, they are our (potential) prey.

And our homes are not their natural habitat.

Is Allie looking at a photo of her natural habitat, while sitting in mine?

What changes can we make in our environment, then, to ensure they feel safe in it?

Honestly, if you're a passionate cat owner, chances are you know a cat needs vertical space, and you know it's important for them to have exercise and mental stimulation. But have you ever thought about why they may need it?

The way we maneuver through our own homes, the bursts of laughter (or yelling) that come about through the natural course of life...

All these things, from our cats' perspective, can feel threatening. Unsafe.

It's not just physical changes we should be considering, but also mental. Changes we need to make in our attitudes and actions. One really good example is how terrified Faraday is of plastic trash bags (sorry kid, I'm so outing you). So I adapt. I make sure I don't open one with a sharp click of my wrist that makes such a frightening noise when he's around. I try to make sure my home feels more like a library than a three-ring circus.

And every time I set aside time in my schedule to play with them, I'm engaging them in an action that instills confidence and promotes greater comfort in this foreign environment they now call home. 

Myth Busting

Are cats naturally standoffish and aloof, or are they simply scared and uncomfortable with their surroundings?  As we now know, it's the latter.

And just like humans, cats don't all share the same temperament. So what might be mild discomfort in one cat could manifest as very scared in another cat.

This is why it's so important to provide physical and environmental enrichment.

Faraday's preferred enrichment: TOYS.

Sandra Lyn said we need to make sure cats are comfortable in their environment and that they have some control over it. 

She emphasized that if you can, start socializing a cat early -- between 2 to 7 weeks of age. You're preparing them for an environment that is not their natural one.

And it's a lifelong process, she stated. You never stop socializing a cat. It's a constant drumbeat of reassurance: it's okay, you're safe.

Is my cat doing
this on purpose?

Sandra Lyn gets a lot of questions about whether a cat's behavior is "done with intention."
Her answer? No. It’s simply not true that a cat would "act out" like a child in his "terrible twos."

But sadly, there’s not much research about cat cognitive abilities and social behavior, so we tend to infer a lot of our own social prejudice onto their behavior.

Remember, she said, they have a shorter 'domestication evolution' history. We’re asking them to cope in their new environment, and a lot of what people see as intent is a coping mechanism. There's no intention behind it, no malice. 

Cat café owner Christina Ha added, "you can't shove a super shy cat into a public situation and force them to adapt. You must create an environment that is safe. And that can sometimes take a really long time. But it's worth it."

Back to those Millennials

"Our hope,"  Delgado adds "is that cat cafés might change social interactions." The majority of the people who frequent cat cafés are Millennials because of social sharing about them. And that provides a huge opportunity to educate.

"On social," Christina said, "we can provide very concise information. Helpful tidbits like this Facebook post: 'don't forget to play with your cat for at least fifteen minutes each day. It relieves boredom and helps make them feel more relaxed and confident.' "

"We think cats are upset with us or we're not good enough for them, but social media is an opportunity for us to educate people on misinformation people have about cats. And answer questions, such as 'Is this cat happy or stressed?' 'Is this idiosyncratic behavior or is it normal?'

"Not preachy, just facts. We can do this through social media. We can learn in a very fun way."
Lyn agreed. "Bite sized information is important. How can we get that info 'just in time', to the public. Kind of like vitamins."

The good news? Studies have indicated Millennials focus more attention on their cats than previous generations, and they're more willing to spend money on their healthcare than older generations, too.

Mikel Delgado ended the discussion with this:  "There's a myth that cats are low maintenance. That's not true. But what you have to consider is... maintenance is not a bad thing. Like any relationship, cats give back to you what you give to them."

This post is sponsored by Nestlé Purina Pet Care. We are being compensated for writing this #BetterWithPets article, but regardless of the payment received, A Tonk's Tail only shares content we feel our readers will benefit from. Our posts always reflect our honest and unbiased opinions. Nestlé Purina is not responsible for the content of this article.

You can find Nestlé Purina Pet Care at these links:



  1. There was so much wisdom at the Better With Pets Summit! My human is still absorbing it all.

  2. Thank You for such a great post! I got to say that there are so many interesting, informative and important things coming from this Summit and being shared here, that I can't see there not being changes for the better, so long as we act on the information.

  3. I am so impressed by everything I'm hearing that was discussed at the Summit!

  4. Very interesting post ! Thank you so much for sharing all these informations ! Purrs

  5. Errrrr what's a millennial? Scrub that! The Staff has just looked it up!! She is now depressed because she finds she's not one of those, or even generation x!! She's older than Stonehenge!! Anyways it looks like there was useful stuff at this conference :)

  6. Very nice post, I only disagree with the part about cats not doing things intentionally. As I sit here writing this, Prancie wants to be fed so she is in the entertainment center trying to chew on a frame so I will get up and feed her-I think that is intentional :)

  7. Their reaction? "OMIGOD, I've been playing with my cat wrong for years!" ~ this made me laugh..

    And I've been saying the predator / prey thing for years.. it is so important people understand that..

    That and cats have absolutely no concept of the negative.. saying no and don't mean nothing to them. If you can form your request to your cat in the form of a positive (instead of don't sit there, say things like could you sit here) will make a huge difference in how you interact with your cat

    1. mom had one person tell her "I keep telling my cat no but they don't listen." mom's response "they are listening, they just don't care" :) kind of - take a message and get back to you

  8. This is very interesting. Since I can't have a cat at this time, I would love to visit a cat cafe and hang out with some. ☺

  9. LOVE this information. mom says it amazes her sometimes when she give the predator AND prey comments that people are surprised. they see teeth and claws and tend to forget it is about size as well. we hope the next generation is becoming GREAT cat people

  10. guys...manee thanx two yur mom for sharing thiz .....we N joyed reedin it ☺☺

  11. Such good information! The head peep heard a talk last year about how the generations are shifting for pets, that the boomers have had the most pets and spent the most time and money on them for a long time, but that they are slowly "aging out" of pet care duties (and opening up opportunities for pet care for seniors businesses). On the flip side, as the boomers having pets decreases, millennials increase. We're so pleased to hear that people are putting some thought into how to get a message of how to understand their cats through to those millennials so that they'll live lots of happy years together.

  12. Wow, such great information. I'm really impressed with everything I've heard from the #BetterWithPets summit. Thanks for sharing!

  13. We are glad the millenials are catching up to the Boomers. Like our TBT!


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