Dressing up cats – why you shouldn’t be doing it.

October 26, 2018
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Halloween is around the corner and after two years on Instagram this is my absolute “cringe month”. I absolutely despise social media in the lead-up to this holiday, especially with what I have learnt recently.

And no – it’s not because I am not a fan of the colder season or the various festivities (Halloween, Karnevall etc.) per se.

I run a cat account so naturally I follow (mostly) other cat accounts. And Halloween is when people decide to put their cat’s physical, psychological and emotional well-being at risk by dressing them in costumes. I know this sounds harsh, but bear with me and let me explain.

I never even saw a cat or dog in a costume until I ventured into the world of Instagram a little over two years ago. I was a little taken aback when I first saw a cat in a pirate costume and my exact thoughts were “But….why?!”

To me cats (and pets in general) aren't inanimate objects or toys to play with. They are sentient beings with their own perceptions and feelings. 'Owning' a pet doesn't give us license to do things to them for our own amusement. Yes, some people might feel those photos of dressed up cats and dogs are darn cute - but only to humans.

I will never understand why humans can’t let cats just be cats…but that’s a story for a different blog.

So, let me explain to you why I believe dressing up cats (in costumes or other type of clothing) is something I personally believe to be cruel, unnecessary and not even remotely funny or cute.

DISCLAIMER: By cat costumes or clothing I mean all material that has no medical or other purpose. I absolutely do NOT object to any clothing needed for medical reasons (like medical shirts or cones or clothing for hairless cats to help them regulate body temperature) and I also don’t object to harnesses if used to give your cat a positive experience by walking them in nature. I also don’t particularly mind bow ties / bandanas as long as they are safe or accessories that the cat can easily shake off when they don’t like it (just please don’t ever put them back on once they do shake them off – respect their choice).

Left: Xafi in her Alien "costume" - Right: Auri in her Vampurr "costume"

But before I start – if you have dressed up your cats in the past either for a special occasion or regularly please know that I am not blanket judging everyone who has done so. As with many things in cat care not everyone might be aware that something they thought harmless to their beloved pets has actually quite a negative effect on them. In fact, whilst I always found cat costumes a bit off-putting and frankly “weird” I didn’t actually know most of what I will tell you today until a few weeks ago. What I do hope to achieve by writing this, is that I will open some people’s eyes with this blog, as mine were opened, and start a respectful and friendly dialogue. So please read on.

For the purpose of my arguments, I will mostly be using paragraphs taken from a blog written by a very knowledgeable friend of mine who is one of the greatest cat champions I know and also knows her stuff being well on her way to being a certified cat behaviourist, Marjan Debevere. Instagram account @lillmanlulu_luigi_and_co.

Marjan's crew all dressed up in their tuxes and suits (except for Archie who opted for an open striped V-neck shirt, the rebel)

If you have read Marjan’s blog already you will know she is very knowledgeable in the field of cat welfare and behaviour and a passionate cat advocate that is only a few months away from being a fully qualified cat behaviourist after three years of study. She has worked as a volunteer in cat shelters for seven years, supporting re-homing of cats, photographing them to increase their adoption chances and helping cats that have suffered from cruelty. Marjan is also a member of the ISAP (the international society for animal professionals). I will reiterate some of her arguments alongside my own opinion here and hope this will help you form your own view on the subject. I am asking anyone who dresses up their cats to not get defensive upon reading this, but to be reflective when reading my five reasons for not dressing up your cats:  

Reasons of safety:

According to Marjan Debevere “A large proportion of commercially available cat costumes and clothing have not been certified to be safe for cats and can present a choking hazard or fire risk. Costume pieces might get chewed and swallowed and lead to choking or intestinal blockage.”

In addition, your cat might suddenly freak and make a run for it which could cause them to become tangled and hurt themselves. Also, considering cats don’t need to wear clothes, your cat could become over-heated(especially kittens) or develop an allergic reaction to the chemicals used in the production of the clothing.

What I heard from people after presented with these facts is:

“This will never happen to me” - “I’m always careful” - “My cat is so mellow, nothing would ever happen” - “I only put it on for like a minute”

My answer to these statements:

Is it really worth the risk?

Left: Izzy from IG@Izzyandthefluff dressed as Jack Nicholson's "Jack Torrance" in The Shining - Right: Izzy dressed as a Vampurr

Reasons of unnecessary stress:

“Cats are predators as well as prey animals which means they have to be on high alert and aware of their environment pretty much all of the time to ensure their safety and survival.” (Marjan Debevere).

We tend to forget sometimes that our lovely cuddly house tigers have not been domesticated for all that long in evolutionary terms and their natural instinct are still very much alive! A lot of costumes have headpieces like hats or hoods or even balaclavas (such as the “infamous” lion’s mane. As Marjan Debevere says: “[these] will very likely interfere with the cat’s sight, hearing and whisker functionality. Not to mention the stress that brings with it. Although you know your cat is safe, your cat has no way of knowing that.”

All your cat will know is that some of their core senses necessary to perceive their environment have been suddenly disabled.

In addition, “plenty of costumes are restrictive and interfere with the free movement of a cat. The cat may find the whole experiences so stressful they may well redirect some of that frustration onto another member of the household,pet or human. Not to mention they might be picked on by other cats in the home whilst they are in a vulnerable position looking like a dressed-up plum.”(Marjan Debevere)

What I often hear from people after presented with these facts is:

“But my cat doesn’t mind getting dressed up!”  - “My cat likes it – look how she flaunts herself around!”  - “Get a grip, it’s only a few minutes and it’s so cute”

My answer to these statements:

I respectfully disagree. There is no cat that “likes” getting dressed up, I do concede that there are cats who have been subjected to costumes and clothing so often they have simply“given up” or they got positively conditioned, meaning they start associating the positive feelings of playtime with their human and treats with the clothing and therefore appear to be happy when they see the dress-up box come out.This does not mean they like it though – trust me they would much rather have the playtime and treats without the negative effects (dressing up) associated to it.

In addition, you have to consider that cats are an entirely different species to us which means what we perceive as a calm, placid cat “enjoying” to get dressed up may actually be a paralysed, stressed-out cat hoping for it all to be over soon. Misreading a cat’s behaviour is incredibly common and has nothing to do with how much we love them. It is something we need to learn and something we need to be self-reflective about.

Being confined or have their senses restricted by costumes is a highly stressful event for a cat which, according to Marjan Debevere causes a “release of stress hormones resulting in one of the following responses: fight, flee, freeze, fidget or in extreme cases even faint. It’s called the ‘Fight or Flight Response’”. And we have seen them all –those “funny” videos or photos of cats in awkward positions trying to fight off the costume (and sometimes the person putting the offending object on them). Or the videos of cats freezing and flopping over after a hat is put on them.Hilarious right? Not so much for the cat that is in utter terror for their life while you roll on the floor laughing.

Left: Errol dressed up as a bunny - Right: Errol dressed up as a fox

Reasons of bonding

Cats are amazing at the concept of learnt behaviour. They learn and make associations all their life – positive and negative – to keep them safe,well fed and happy.

“So, when you dress up a cat, it will associate the person who put him into the outfit with a negative/stressful experience and will eventually avoid the person who is inflicting this stress onto him. Dressing up a cat can be a very effective way to break a bond of trust with your cat.” (Marjan Debevere)

What I often hear from people after presented with these facts is:

“But my cat still loves me and I dress him up every day” - “My cat loves it and the time I spend with him”

My answer to these statements:

Yes, they often don’t appear to show any decline in their affection for you, because often the amount of positive associations with your person(food, cuddles, play) outweigh the negative – see my argument explaining positive conditioning above. But again – is it worth the risk? Just imagine how much better your relationships might be if you enjoyed playtime and treat time without the manhandling involved in dressing them up.

Reasons of respect:

As hard as I will try all my life I will never be able to completely understand my cats, but I respect them for what, who and how they are. And cats are not humans. They don’t need to wear clothes to protect them from the cold (with the exception of some breeds and cats with certain health conditions) and they don’t need to wear fancy hats to impress the object of their desire.

As mentioned before - dressing up your cat for no other reason than because you find it cute or funny or want to impress your social media following selfish, vain and serves no purpose than your own with no positives for the cat.

In addition, Marjan Debevere most eloquently said: “Most, if not all of these commercially made costumes are made from highly flammable, synthetic fibres that to a cat’s very sensitive nose reek to the high heavens of all kinds of unpleasantness. The smell and feel of these costumes against their pristine coats that they have spent so many hours grooming is enough to tip some cats over the psychological edge.They will need to spend hours cleaning their fur to get rid of that hideous smell on their coats. More stress for the cat that may lead to over grooming and plenty of other conditions I won’t bore you with. Some cats are also sensitive to being touched and won’t cope well with the feeling of a costume rubbing on their coats.

To me it simply means to “soil” their coat with the stench of fabric when they have no say in the matter. When you dress up your cat, he or she has no choice – you literally dominate their world (whether you force the costume on them or condition them to allow you to do it) and they are completely dependent on you. Somehow doesn’t sound fair to me…

Left: Clive, Hula and Luigi showing off their "Johnny Cash and the Blues Brothers" costumes- Right: Clive dressed up as Black Panther aka the protector of Wakanda

Reasons of necessity

What I mean by this is what I said right in the beginning. But…why?!

Is the risk to your cat’s health and safety, mental well-being and the bond with you really worth those five minutes of “LOL” and “aww cute”? Are the likes and comments from strangers on social media really worth essentially degrading your cat to a dress-up doll, to an accessory, an “object” to do with as you please?

 

So yes – I despise the time leading up to Halloween because all of the above goes through my head now every time I see another cat looking at me with big sad eyes out of a costume on Instagram.

I do hope after reading this (or before!) you feel the same and were just emphatically nodding your agreement. If so - I thank you and encourage you to tell your friends, family, followers and neighbours. Feel free to share this blog or write your own. Only by speaking up and educating each other we can effect a change – no matter the subject.

A note of caution

There are no scientific studies on the effect of costumes and clothing on cats that I could find. Thankfully, in my opinion,because it would mean dressing up cats for the purpose of science. However most cat behaviourists will be able to tell you that no cat "loves" being dressed up, but can be made to accept it via positive conditioning. Positive conditioning, as mentioned above, is a powerful tool often used to train service animals and is, in my opinion, a tool that should be used responsibly. Using it to make a cat accept something that has no other purpose than to amuse us is simply selfish and vain in my view.

As stated in the beginning I am aware that a lot of people will have dressed their cats up in the past never aware or considering these aspects. I know that the vast majority of cat owners love their cats and would never intentionally do anything to harm them. To those of you I plead: share this with your friends and simply stop dressing up your cats. They will thank you for it.

To those of you that I have offended or that still think their cats like dressing up or feel it’s okay to do to your pet what you want since,legally, it is your “property”: I beg of you to think about it, reflect on it and look closely at your cat when you do choose to continue doing this. Is he/she really enjoying this? Did I give him / her a real choice in the matter? Is it really necessary or am I just doing this for me and my own sense of amusement and what I find “cute”?

Lastly, to reiterate: By cat costumes or clothing I mean all material that has no medical or other purpose. I absolutely do NOT object to any clothing needed for medical reasons (like medical shirts or cones or clothing for cats that need help to regulate body temperature) and I also don’t object to harnesses if used to give your cat a positive experience by walking them in nature. I also don’t particularly mind bow ties / bandanas as long as they are safe or accessories that the cat can easily shake off when they don’t like it (just please don’t ever put them back on once they do shake them off – respect their choice).

P.S. I hope you enjoyed the compilation of non-costume Halloween themed photos generously provided by @lillmanlulu_luigi_and_co @izzyandthefluff in addition to our photos of @xafiandauri and @errol.the.cat

I just wanted to show that holiday-themed photos don’t necessarily need costumes or even accessories. And if you do want to add some accessories – there is a lot of fun to be had by learning Photoshop or using photo editing apps with pre-made stickers you can add to your images.

Thank you for reading!

Further reading:

For those of you that would like to read some other opinions and literature of the subject please see below list of sources and further reading:

  • If you would like to read the main source for this article please see Marjan’s blog here.
  • For the official RSPCA (UK animal protection charity) stance on the subject please see here.
  • For a BBC article interviewing the RSPCA see here. This is referring to dogs mainly but can be applied to cats too
  • For the Australian RSPCA (animal protection charity) stance on the subject please see here.
  • For the PDSA (leading UK veterinarian charity) stance on the subject see here.
  • Another interesting BBC article including input from clinical animal behaviourist Pippa Hutchison, see here.
  • For the stance of the world renowned cat behaviour expert Pam Johnson-Bennett please see here.
  • Not related to the topic but another great source for generally understanding cats better is Vicky Halls (I recently read her latest iteration of "Cat Confidential"). Her book made me realise that as much as I would love to think I know my cats best it is extremely common to misread your feline companion. Please see here for here website.
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