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Keys to Understanding Your Quirky Kitty

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Cat owners can have a lot of questions: "Should I get a second cat as a playmate?" "How can I stop my cat from scratching the furniture?" "Why doesn't he use the litter box?"

So, in the spirit of David Letterman, I compiled this top 10 list of cat behavior tips:

  1. A persistent misconception about domestic cats is that they are not social...
  2. Having multiple cats can increase problematic behaviors...
  3. Although the socialization of puppies receives a lot of attention, the same is not true of kittens...
  4. Litter boxes are often designed to please cat owners instead of cats...
  5. Cats are known for their fastidious behavior—grooming takes up a good portion of their time, second only to sleeping...

You’ll have to read the article for the remaining five!

Dr. Becker's Comments:

The housecat can be regarded as the most successful feline in history. It is the only cat to have managed to manipulate another species (that would be you) into paying for his room and board in return for frugal displays of affection.

Unlike other domesticated creatures, the house cat has historically contributed little directly to human survival.

Researchers continue to ponder how and why cats came to live among people. While other wild animals were domesticated for their milk, meat, wool or servile labor, cats contributed virtually nothing in the way of sustenance or work to human endeavor.

Yet, despite their mercurial nature, the house cat is the most popular pet in the world.

In spite of their numerous quirks, we love being around them—to the point that they have now surpassed dogs in popularity. A third of American households have feline members, and more than 600 million cats live among humans worldwide.

Cats can vacillate between aloof and affectionate, serene and beastly, endearing and exasperating. And it’s the exasperating part of the housecat’s personality that can tie your otherwise peaceful household up in knots!

Understanding your quirky kitty can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible.

The better you understand his behavioral motivations, the better your chances for developing good strategies for reducing aggression and other undesirable behaviors in your home—and the higher your Household Happiness Quotient will be.

The Myth of the Independent, Aloof Cat

The myth that cats are detached, independent and aloof is pervasive in books, cartoons and in water cooler conversations. It persists because feline social organization is quite different from that of humans or dogs, and historically misunderstood.

Cats are merely social in different ways.

Evidence is plentiful that cats have social needs. Cats have been found to form long-term pair bonds, live in family groups or in large groups with a relatively stable long-term membership[i]. Cats recognize members of their social group, and they engage in cooperative behavior and reciprocal communication.

Cats also participate in cooperative rearing of their young.

Queens in feral colonies have even been observed helping other queens during birthing by cleaning the newborn kittens, as well as cleaning the perineal area of the mom cat after she gives birth. This cooperative birthing is rare among nonhumans.

What Feral Felines Have Taught Us

A great amount has been learned from studying the behavior or feral cat colonies[ii].

Solitary behavior and aggression is more common when food is scarce, but going solo is NOT their preference.

Cats can survive as solitary animals, but they readily form social groups with internal structure whenever food sources are sufficient to support them.

Cats in feral colonies will often form little groups of two or more, and they will associate more closely with these “best friends” than with other colony members. Cats are most likely to become best friends with those who are related to them, but close friendships often form among nonrelated individuals as well.

These rubbie-buddies groom each other and rub on each other (aka allogrooming and allorubbing), evidence of their need for ongoing physical contact. This is akin to a handshake or a hug between people.

When your cat rubs on you, he is identifying you as part of his little colony. And you reciprocate this behavior when you pet him or groom him.

What a great example of a social bond!

While there are dominant and subordinate individuals in a cat colony, unlike dogs, cats don’t maintain a clearly defined hierarchy wherein each individual is ranked above or below another. There is often an “alpha” cat, but other cats decide who owns what on a case-by-case basis, and it can change daily.

In multi-cat households, as in colonies, one cat might be “alpha” for the food dish. Another might be “alpha” for the litter area. Yet another might be the big boss of one particular room in your house.

There are many examples of complex social structures with cats.

But the point is, your kitty isn’t wired to live in a bubble. You and the other members of your household (the two legged and the four legged) are his “colony.”

Early socialization has a tremendous effect on your kitty’s personality, and it should start very early in his life.

Socialization of Kittens

Much has been written about the socialization of puppies, but until recently, kittens were left out. Now we know that kittens enjoy the same benefits from early socialization as puppies.

Through gentle handling and play, your kitten learns how to interact appropriately with his environment, with other cats, other people, and other animals. Kittens, like most young animals, can do this very easily—until they reach a certain age.

Studies show that a kitten is most receptive to socialization between two to seven weeks of age[iii]. If he is handled carefully by people, and if he enjoys a lot of pleasant interactions with other pets and has enjoyable new experiences (sites, noises, smells, sensations), your kitten is more likely to remain friendly toward humans and other animals as he matures.

In fact, studies show that kittens who are held and stroked for just a few minutes each day before seven weeks of age will open their eyes sooner, play sooner, and be less afraid of strangers.

This is why, if you are bringing home a new kitten, it’s best to do that by six to seven weeks.

After seven weeks or so, your kitty is naturally wired to become more suspicious of things he hasn’t experienced.

Whereas his open, fearless nature during the early socialization period allows him to become comfortable with his everyday life, the suspiciousness he gains in his third month of life has the purpose of ensuring he’ll react with a healthy dose of caution to new things that could be dangerous to him, like predators.

The older a cat becomes, the less easy he is to socialize.

This is not to say your older cat’s behaviors can’t be changed—but it will take more time and persistence and patience on your part. You might not be able to turn a shy cat into a social butterfly, but it is possible to calm down an extremely fearful cat.

Lesson #1: Fingers Are Not Toys

Three to four weeks of age is a great time to introduce interactive toys for your kitten to chase, like faux mice or birds strung from a wand.

Along with practicing his hunting skills, this is also the best time to teach him one of the most important lessons of all—that fingers are not toys.

Keep an extra toy handy and, if kitty scratches or bites in play, distract him with it. If your kitty is playing rough, leaving you bleeding after play sessions, the ASPCA has an article on how to more specifically deal with this[iv].

Kitty Kindergarten

Many cats are fearful of travel because their only travel experience is to the vet.

If your cat runs for the hills in terror every time you get his carrier out of the closet, he has probably been inadvertently conditioned to associate a car ride with an unpleasant experience.

Cat behavior experts have recently developed kitten classes as a great way to establish good behavior, while at the same time providing positive experiences with travel.

Instead of associating the car ride with a traumatic vet visit—and often a vaccination—your kitten experiences some car rides as fun outings, and he’ll end up staying calmer for future travels.

Typical kitten socialization classes include taking your kitten to two or three sessions when he is between 7 and 14 weeks old.

Kitty Kindergarten helps your kitten meet new people, learn to play with other cats, and encounter new objects and interesting toys. Parents usually have enjoy the classes, learning a few basic parenting skills such as teaching Junior how to come when called.

The ASPCA site also has some nice articles on reward-based training, if you are interested in developing better skills in this area[v][vi]. And the American Association of Feline Practitioners has provided a nice publication about feline behavior that is worth a look[vii].

In addition to socialization, there is scientific evidence that your cat’s individual variations in behavior may also have genetic and environmental factors:

  • Different breeds are marked by different behavioral tendencies.
  • Researchers in the UK scored kittens on friendliness to people and determined that paternity accounted for most of the variation. Kittens sired by friendly fathers were more likely to be sociable than kittens sired by reserved fathers.[viii]
  • Early nutrition is also an important factor determining your cat’s personality. Kittens of malnourished mothers are developmentally delayed and more accident prone in play, for example.viii

Do Cats Have Emotions?

Of course!

According to the latest scientific research, veterinarians and researchers have found physiological and behavioral evidence that cats do experience emotions.

The physiological evidence suggests that cats experience many of the same emotions as humans:

  • Cats experience the same biochemical changes in the brain that you do, in response to emotions like pleasure or fear; and cats respond to the same mood regulating neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, etc.) as you do.
  • Some of the drugs that are designed to address mood disorders in people, such as depression and anxiety, also affect the moods of cats.
  • Damage to certain brain structures that regulate fear, rage, and other emotions has similar effects in both humans and cats.
  • Cats can experience depression and grief, which can override their basic survival instincts, such as the urge to eat.

Your cat’s emotions can range from joy, sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, and frustration to affection, excitement, pleasure and contentment, and maybe even more complex emotions such as compassion, embarrassment, jealousy and love.

A basic difference between the emotions of people and those of cats may be that humans can analyze their own emotions—and even have emotional responses to their emotional responses—but cats are unlikely to experience such introspection.

In other words, you are self-conscious whereas kitty is not.

There are still those who continue to argue that animals do not experience emotions, but many of these folks have only observed animals in laboratory settings where their behavior is unnatural due to stress, pain and lack of social interaction.

Some cling to the view that animals are incapable of experiencing feelings in order to justify inhumane animal treatment and experimentation.

As an aside, many organic farmers have recognized that well-treated animals in low-stress environments are healthier and more productive.

Anthropomorphizing Your Cat’s Behavioral Problem

In treating behavioral problems, it is important to acknowledge the emotional aspect of your cat’s behavior, while being careful not to anthropomorphize, since that will result in enormous misinterpretations.

For example, if a cat is urinating on the floor, some owners interpret this to mean their cat is doing it out of spite or to punish them for something, when it is actually a result of anxiety, territoriality, illness or litter box aversion.

A cat that is angry is more likely to show it by impulsively lashing out, rather than taking revenge by peeing on your favorite duvet.

When cats show aggression, it usually stems from fear rather than rage—your cat is likely launching a preemptive strike against someone he views as a threat.

By being mindful of your cat’s emotional and behavioral nature, you will be better able to “decode” his behavior and effectively intervene, when needed, with compassion and understanding—the prescription for a high Household Happiness Quotient!

[i] Cromwell-Davis S. L. “Dispelling the myth of the asocial cat” November 1, 2006. DVM360: DVM Newsmagazine (CVC)

[ii] Copley J. “Social structure of feral cat colonies: Behavior and interactions among groups of homeless felines” (April 27, 2004)

+ Sources and References