I purchased two new kitty food bowls for Jimmy and Juliet – a blue one and a pink one. For two weeks now, they have eaten only from the blue bowl.

In an effort to help our cats become accustomed to the pink bowl, I removed the blue bowl. Even when vocalizing their hunger pangs, they have refused to eat from the pink bowl.

It’s rather curious, and I’m starting to wonder if the change is causing psychological stress on them. Cats keep away from a person who has caused them anxiety. Jimmy has stopped greeting me at the door; Juliet has stopped bringing me socks.

The bowls are both ceramic. They were purchased at the same time from the same pet store; washed with the same soap; dried with the same towel. The bowls sit side-by-side on their kitty placemat, just as all previous kitty food bowls have sat.

This phenomenon has baffled me. I considered that maybe the bowl’s pinkish hue resembles to them the inside of a predator’s mouth, but that doesn’t seem to make sense. First, while they were shelter cats and we don’t have any information about their first four months of life, there is a good chance that they never saw a wolf, bear or even an owl before they were rescued. Second, cats are blind to colors on the red spectrum. I’m not sure what Jimmy and Juliet see when they look at that pink bowl.

This silliness takes me back to my young daughters who would only drink from a specific sippy cup. I would say to my older daughter, “You get the blue lid to match your blue eyes” and to my younger daughter, “You get the red lid to match your rosy cheeks.” How dare I mix it up with yellow or orange sippy cup lids to match their yellow hair or orange freckles. It had to be the same lid every time.

As it turns out, young children find comfort in the rituals of using the same sippy cup, reading the same book or walking the same path to the playground. Their brains are just learning how to manage change, and it’s a process that may take 20 years or so as their brains continue to develop.

Tovah Klein, Ph.D. explains in Psychology Today, “Some children are naturally better at transitions than others. Managing transitions depends on multiple factors, including a child’s inborn temperament and natural capacities to be organized, developmental level and context. For example, a tired or overwhelmed child has a harder time handling change than a well-rested one; being in a new place is harder to manage change than a familiar one.”

Even though reading “Green Eggs and Ham” for the 500th time may become draining on mom and dad, researchers point to the positive impact of repetition for young children. They believe that when the brain has to recall previously learned information, (e.g. the red sippy cup lid used last time), it strengthens connections in the brain. Eventually, the brain becomes so adept at recalling and accessing past information that it can do so more quickly. As a result, the brain has freed up time to take on learning new information.

I found an intriguing analogy at happychild.org.uk: “When you create a memory, a pathway is created between your brain cells. It is like clearing a path through a dense forest. The first time that you do it, you have to fight your way through the undergrowth. If you don't travel that path again, very quickly it will become overgrown and you may not even realise that you have been down that path. If however, you travel along that path before it begins to grow over, you will find it easier than your first journey along that way. Successive journeys down that path mean that eventually your track will turn into a footpath, which will turn into a lane, which will turn into a road, and into a motorway and so on. It is the same with your memory: the more times that you repeat patterns of thought, for example when learning new information, the more likely you will be able to recall that information. So repetition is a key part of learning.”

The repetition theory seems to work well on children, but not so much on cats.

Pamela Henderson is the director of development and communications at Dunebrook. To learn more about parenting and support programs at Dunebrook, call (800) 897-0007. Email Pam with parenting questions and comments at pam@dunebrook.org.

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