Should I put a costume on my cat this Halloween?
Folks, I’ve got to be blunt: don’t do it. Don’t put your cat in costume.
Hear me out.
A house cat is practically a wild animal
Cats domesticated themselves only 10,000 to 5,000 years ago, which is a blip in evolutionary time. Dogs, by contrast, were domesticated at least 23,000 years ago, and some say it was more like 30,000.
And what did we do to dogs? We got involved. We turned wolves into mastiffs, for guarding and fighting. We turned them into short-legged corgis for herding our livestock. And we even turned big, bad wolves into tiny Maltese dogs for sitting on our laps.
We didn’t even domesticate cats. We say that cats “self-domesticated” because they decided to live with us. We had barns and granaries filled with mice, and cats figured it made sense to live near humans. And we humans said to cats, “Have at it.” And we left them alone.
Cat fancy – the selective breeding of cats to accentuate certain traits – didn’t even begin until 200 years ago.
There are only 15-20 genes separating that little fluffball mewing at your feet, from a wild cat. Your house cat still has the most extensive hearing range compared to other carnivores, sees well in low light, and thrives on a high-protein diet, suggesting cats haven’t yet evolved to even depend upon us for food.
In other words, we have not changed cats to be “one of us.” And they are most definitely not in on the costume fun.
I have dogs, too. This is Ziti wearing a meatball-and-spaghetti costume for Halloween. I’m not saying that all dogs are happy wearing a costume, or that it’s OK to make a dog who is uncomfortable in a costume, wear a costume. But dogs are used to being asked to do things for their humans that they don’t necessarily understand (in exchange for a tiny piece of chicken), because that’s the deal they made with us 23,000 years ago.
But that’s not the agreement we have with cats.
Costumes don’t allow cats to be their cat selves
Cats are all senses and movement.
When they’re not sleeping, they’re smelling, seeing, touching, hearing.
They’re leaping to chase prey, even if that prey is a housefly, or a tinfoil ball. They’re hiding to avoid capture, or to leap out and ambush a stocking-clad foot.
These behaviors and inclinations are what makes a cat a cat. It’s why you got a cat: because you love their very cat-ness.
Costumes interfere with a cat’s cat-ness. Hats may cover a cat’s ears or eyes, muffling his hearing, and obscuring his vision. Outfits and props may compress his very sensitive whiskers, which are actually connected to sensory organs that a cat relies upon for everything from navigation to judging distance when he leaps.
(Read all about a cat’s whiskers here.)
Costumes may restrict a cat’s movement. At best she’ll be very uncomfortable, unable to dart, scurry, caper, bound, and pounce like she’s used to.
At worst, she’ll injure herself, especially if the costume impedes a getaway from another pet in the household, or some imaginary danger. And most especially if that thing “chasing” her is actually attached to her, as part of her costume.
Costumes make cats smell funny
Scent is everything in the cat world. When you put a factory-stinky costume on a cat (or any clothing for that matter) you are changing her scent.
Scent is why cats head butt you. Scent might be the reason cats put their paw on you. It’s one of the reasons they sleep with you. It explains why cats stick their butts in your face, and sometimes, why they pee and poop outside their litter boxes. I could go on.
In a multicat household, Fluffy, who no longer smells like Fluffy, is now a stranger in the midst of her own family. She might be ignored or even attacked by another cat, who does not recognize this odd-smelling interloper.
A simple costume can upset the delicate balance of power in a multicat household. The costumed cat may lash out in fear, or may even try to run from his suddenly aggressive former friends. But he’ll be at a disadvantage as a costume will surely restrict his ability to make a clean getaway.
Cats hate being stared at in their costumes
You’re thinking, “just a quick kitty photo shoot for Instagram.” Your cat might be thinking, “Are you looking to start something?”
Direct eye contact means something completely different to a cat than to a human. Locking eyes on a target is how visual hunters, like cats, effectively stalk prey.
Staring also how cats, who are gearing up for a fight, let other cats know there’s a world of hurt coming their way if they don’t back off.
(Read about why cats stare at you in this post.)
You may be “staring” at your cat in adoration, but your cat is not feeling adored when you admire (or photograph) him in his Halloween costume. Less-confident cats are truly stressed out by being stared at.
Oh c’mon! I’ll take the costume off the cat in a minute!
Stressed-out cats don’t just “deal” with stress, or take medication, or go for a run, or do whatever stressed-out humans do.
Stressed-out cats internalize their stress. They may begin grooming too much, or they may hiss or growl. Some cats overeat; others lose their appetite. Some cats start peeing or pooping outside the box, or scratching the furniture, or meowing excessively.
Cats can internalize stress to the point that it suppresses their immune systems, making them more susceptible to illness.
A minute in a costume is a bit of fun for you, but it’s a very stressful, big deal to your cat.
But my cat doesn’t mind wearing a costume for Halloween!
It’s entirely possible that your cat is the most relaxed feline in the world, who truly tolerates wearing a costume.
It’s equally possible that you’re misinterpreting things.
Cats who do a whole lot of nothing when they’re dressed up, might not be relaxed so much as “frozen.” Cats often freeze in stressful situations.
Does your cat flop over onto her side when you put a costume on? That’s not a sign of relaxation either.
Does your cat try to hide, remove the costume, or paw at his own body? By now, you should know what those gestures really mean.
If you post your cat in a costume, you’re contributing to social-media culture
Even if your cat loves wearing clothing, most cats really, really, do not.
By posting photos of your cat in costume, you are contributing to an online culture that is enchanted with the idea of cats wearing adorable outfits. Your photos and videos perpetuate the idea that people should buy costumes for their cats, put them on their cats, hold fun photo shoots, and share the results with the world.
Other cat guardians may be unaware of the harm they’re causing. But you’re not.
There are alternative ways to celebrate Halloween with cats
I get the desire to share and celebrate holidays with family members, especially our beloved cats and dogs.
It is for this reason that I designed Spooky Cat Haunted House for cats. It’s a cardboard-box style playhouse that allows cats to hide on Halloween, which they like doing a whole lot more than dressing up.
You’ll love the creepy Halloween theme (spiderwebs, bats, and ghosts) and the fact that you’re doing right by your cat this holiday season.
There are many, many other Halloween-themed toys on the market that allow you to celebrate the holiday in a cat-friendly way. We mention some really fun ones in this post, "7 Spook-tacular Halloween gifts for your cat."
The exceptions to the “no dress-up” rule
There are times when the benefits of putting something on your cat’s body outweigh her potential discomfort and even stress. Let’s review some examples:
If your cat just came home from emergency surgery, you were probably instructed to keep a recovery collar or cone around her neck. This is an exception to the “nothing on your cat’s body” because the benefits – the reduced risk of self-injury and infection – outweigh the stress your cat must surely feel wearing the cone.
A collar may be considered an exception to this rule, because an argument could be made that the benefits outweigh the risks. I discuss this at length in this post, “Should I put a collar on my cat?”
You can also slowly, humanely acclimate your cat to the collar to reduce the amount of stress he will experience wearing it.
Clothing for hairless cats
Hairless breeds are usually introduced to the idea of wearing clothing when they are kittens, and still open-minded about new things. Hairless cats may also associate wearing clothing with increased warmth and comfort. Both of these factors likely reduce the stress of wearing clothing, if there is any stress at all.
Like a cat collar, a harness confers benefits on cats who enjoy going outdoors (not all cats wish to be taken outdoors. Know thy cat.)
Cats don’t know, at first, that wearing a harness means they will get to explore the big, wide world. It will be stressful for your cat the first (and second, and third) time you put on the harness.
As with a collar, cats have to be trained, slowly, to become accustomed to wearing a harness. But soon enough, they will associate the wearing of the harness with the pleasure of exploring outdoors.
You love your cat. I know that because you’re reading this post.
I also know that you love your cat because you bought a costume for her! You want to spend time with your cat. You want to have experiences with your cat. You want to celebrate important holidays with your cat.
Your cat will never know that you thought about putting a costume on him, and you really wanted to do it, but changed your mind, for his sake.
But he will know that he always feels safe around you, and that he can trust you.
And that, my cat-loving friends, is everything.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 Bradshaw, John W.S. “Sociality in Cats: A Comparative Review.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Elsevier, 25 Sept. 2015, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1558787815001549.
 Perri, Angela R., et al. “Dog Domestication and the Dual Dispersal of People and Dogs into ... - Pnas.” Dog Domestication and the Dual Dispersal of People and Dogs into the Americas, 2021, https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2010083118.
 Yong, Ed. “A New Origin Story for Dogs.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 16 June 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/06/the-origin-of-dogs/484976/.
 Gwynn Guilford, Quartz. “Why You Shouldn't Trust Your Cat.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 28 Dec. 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/11/man-cat-dog-best-friend-pet/382740/.
 Bradshaw, John. “6 Reasons Your Domestic Cat Is Wilder than You Think.” BBC Science Focus Magazine, BBC Science Focus Magazine, 28 June 2022, https://www.sciencefocus.com/nature/six-reasons-your-cat-is-wilder-than-you-think/.
 Gwynn Guilford, Quartz.
 “10 Signs Your Cat Might Be Stressed.” PetMD, https://www.petmd.com/cat/centers/nutrition/slideshows/signs-your-cat-might-be-stressed.