CatSmart (excerpt)

Chapter 1 – Too Close for Comfort: Recognizing the Role the Cat’s Heritage Plays in Its Behavior

When Rick Bashaw enters the brave new world of cat ownership, he approaches it with the same zest he invests in all of his activities.

“If I’m going to get a cat, I’m going to get a real cat,” he announces to his neighbor, Kathy McNulty, as he scans a thick cat breed book.

After looking at all the pictures and reading the descriptions of the various breeds’ qualities, he easily makes up his mind.

“It’s got to be a Norwegian Forest Cat.” Tim’s eyes glow with enthusiasm as he points to a picture of the massive creature.

“Imagine a can-do cat like that right here in the city.”

Kathy does imagine it, and her image doesn’t quite match Rick’s.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” she asks. “There’s not a lot for a cat like that to do in an apartment, plus you’re gone most of the time.”

“Don’t be silly,” Rick dismisses her concerns as he flips through a catalog of cat products. “I’ll get it lots of toys to play with.”

A few weeks later Rick gets Oslo, a three-month-old male Norwegian Forest kitten, and for the first six months man and cat live an idyllic life. Rick spends what little free time he has with his new pet and never tires of telling Oslo’s many admirers about the kitten’s roots in the rugged Norwegian terrain.

However, when Oslo reaches adulthood that spring, their sweet relationship turns sour. First, the cat begins waking Rick up in the wee hours of the morning, yowling plaintively, jumping at the windows, and digging his claws into the screens. Then he abandons his scratching post for the chair by the front door and then the door frame itself. Worse, Oslo starts climbing and spraying the drapes and knocking things off shelves and counters in Rick’s absence.

The final blow comes the day Rick’s landlord phones him at work, shouting, “You get over here and do something about that blasted cat right now or you’re outta here!”

When Rick arrives home, he encounters a knot of worried neighbors at his front door from behind which blood-curdling howls erupt periodically. When he enters the apartment, he finds Oslo rolled up in the living room window drapes, his claws caught in the loosely woven fabric. While Rick tries to free the terrified animal, the landlord storms into the room.

“What the…” The landlord’s eyes bulge and his face grows beet red as he surveys the havoc wreaked by the cat on the once immaculate apartment. His shouted obscenities further upset Oslo who digs his newly freed claws into Rick’s arm and neck before rocketing up and over his owner and out the door.

In order to know if and how a particular cat will fit into a particular human life, we first need to explore the five most significant factors that influence the outcome of every human-feline interaction:

  • the cat’s wild heritage
  • the cat’s domestic breeding
  • the human-feline environment
  • human orientations toward cats
  • the human-feline bond

We’ll then discuss how to use this knowledge to prevent and treat the most common feline behavioral problem (not using the litter box), and to select exercise, feeding, and healthcare programs that will best fit the needs of a particular cat and owner alike.

The first step in building a mutually satisfying relationship with a cat begins with a knowledge of feline heritage. While this applies to our relationship with members of any species, it figures even more prominently with cats because they pose three unique challenges to this process.

First, a review of the studies of wild and domestic cats over the years makes it clear that the only certainty about cat behavior is its uncertainty. I blush with embarrassment at how confident I once felt about what constituted “normal” cat behavior. Now I realize that my confidence resulted from ignorance rather than knowledge.

Second, a comparison of wild and domestic cat behavior to that of other species quickly reveals a paradox: In many ways, cats rank as the tamest among the wild animals and yet they remain the wildest among the tame. Given the thin, sometimes even nonexistent line between wild and domestic feline behaviors, we need to understand both.

Third, cats also rank as our most recently domesticated species. It would seem that the relative tameness of the wildcats should have predisposed cats to early domesticity, but exactly the opposite held true. Of all domesticated species, cats resisted human manipulation the longest. Moreover, depending on what sort of human manipulation we use to define “domestication,” some scientists claim “domestic” cats, aren’t domesticated yet.

Before reading on, I’d like you to complete the first of a series of exercises designed to help you create a personalized data base to assist you in your quest for a enjoyable life-long relationship with a cat. Because I’ll ask you to refer to this information and expand or refine it throughout the book, I suggest you write down your answers.

Please bear in mind that no right or wrong answers exist. The goal of the exercises is to help you evaluate your feelings about cats, any breed preferences, your environment, and the unique human-feline dynamics in your household so you can avoid problems and pick the exercise, feeding, and healthcare programs that will best meet your and your cat’s specific needs.

Wild Cat Check

List all the behaviors you like and dislike about cats. Do you think these characteristics apply to all cats? Only to wild ones? Or only to domestic ones? Do you assign any specific characteristics to certain breeds? If so, list these breeds and those traits.

When Rick performs this exercise, he discovers he chose Oslo with no idea of wild or domestic cat behavior, let alone that of a purebred Norwegian Forest Cat.

“I did want a real can-do cat,” he admits with a sad shake of his head. “But since Oslo was a purebred, I thought he’d limit any wild behavior indoors. It never dawned on me that he really was sort of a wild cat at heart.”

In order to keep the domestic cat’s wild heritage from ruining his human-feline domestic environment, Rick and all cat owners need to understand what domestication means to a cat.

In the Company of Humans

Although we can’t pinpoint the actual date of domestication for any species, leave it to the cat to generate the most controversy in this regard. Those who define domestication to mean an animal’s willingness to associate with humans point to evidence found in some ancient graves near Jericho and set the date as early as 7000 B. C. On the other hand, those who define domestication as human possession and genetic manipulation surmise that this didn’t occur until around 1600 B.C. Meanwhile those who define domestication as the animal’s dependence on humans for survival look at the burgeoning feral (domestic-gone-wild) cat population and claim we have yet to domesticate the cat at all.

Admittedly some owners may become involved in very needy human-feline relationships (more on this in Chapter Five), but most people’s attraction to cats arises from the animal’s willingness to associate with us at the same time it retains an aura of self-containment. In other words, the idea that this animal allows us to approach it enchants us more than its dependence upon us. Rick’s neighbor, Kathy McNulty, experiences the same awe he feels about the contrast between Oslo stalking a spider and purring in his lap when she interacts with her Abyssinian, Ra.

Because this approachability or tameability plays such an important role in the human-feline relationship, we need to consider a pivotal study scientist Dmitry Belyaev conducted on silver foxes. Because the success of the Russian fox fur trade depended on handling these animals easily, Belyaev and his researchers set out to breed only those foxes that exhibited the most tameness.

To the scientists’ surprise, however, mating the friendliest males with the friendliest females resulted in the creation of an entirely new animal. Not only did the new foxes willingly interact with people like dogs, the adult animals looked and sounded different, too. They sported large ears and downy, tri-colored coats, and yapped and whined like fox kits instead of adults. Also, like both domestic cats and dogs, the tamer foxes came into heat twice a year rather than annually like their wild cohorts.

This experiment revealed two important facts about animal development:

  • When we breed strictly to change an animal’s behavior, we automatically change its body. In other words, the animal develops as a mind-body unit.
  • Breeding strictly for tameness freezes an animal in an immature state. The new foxes basically displayed the appearance and behavior of young kits.

When some people think of domestication, they think of it as a linear process humans pursue until they breed all remnants of wildness out of an animal. However Belyaev’s experiments prove the impossibility of this. Because the animal evolves and develops as a mindbody unit, as long as any remnants of the wild body type remain, the remnants of the wild mind will persist, too. In other words, as long as cats look like cats we can never eliminate their wildness completely.

“Why not?” asks Kathy as she pets Ra and mentally compares her immaculate apartment to Rick’s battered home.

The answer is simple: the more a given behavior contributes to an animal’s survival, the more firmly entrenched that behavior becomes. Normally we may see little obvious evidence of this. But in situations where the animal’s domestic breeding doesn’t provide the necessary wherewithal for survival, it will tap into these ancient reserves. Furthermore, the cat’s relative newness on the domestic scene guarantees that it embodies more of its wild heritage than other domestic species.

Finally, although some people do desire to breed a totally human-dependent cat, much of the cat’s allure lies in its reluctance to do our bidding. Feline ethologist (animal behaviorist) Paul Leyhausen goes so far as to suggest that, for all our talk abut domesticating cats, in reality they domesticated themselves. He bases this suggestion on the lack of any historical evidence that proves humans deliberately planned to incorporate cats into their households.

“I spend all day working with people who come, sit, and stay on demand, and I’m one of them,” Rick declares as Oslo ignores his owner in favor of a piece of paper flapping in the wind. “I want a pet with a mind of its own.”

While many cat owners share Rick’s sentiments, few want to live in cat-ravaged homes. Consequently, and in light of the cat’s shallow domestic roots, it helps to understand where that wildness comes from and how it plays out in suburbia. In my experience, six wild feline behaviors create the most problems for contemporary cats in human society:

  • nocturnal
  • territorial
  • solitary
  • predatory
  • sexual
  • maternal

Before we examine each of these to see how it contributes to the wildcat’s survival, ask yourself the following questions:

Wildness Evaluation

Consider any existing or potential cats in terms of the preceding list of wild characteristics. Which ones appeal to you? Which ones could you easily do without? How much of your view comes from emotion? How much arises from on solid knowledge of cat behavior?

When Rick and Kathy compare their answers, Rick discovers that while he attributes some of Oslo’s behaviors—such as his tendency to stalk anything at a drop of a hat—to the cat’s wildness, Kathy views those same behaviors as a result of Ra’s “playful” Abyssinian breeding. Given that the wildcat heritage goes back thousands of years and the modern Abyssinian breed didn’t originate until the late 1800s, that’s quite a discrepancy! Unfortunately for our relationship with the cat, time problems face us in other areas, too.

The Feline Timetable

One of my favorite cat legends traces the domestic cat to a sensual liaison between a bored monkey and a lion during their long cruise on Noah’s Ark. However, most scientists agree that Felis silvestris and Felis silvestris libyca—the small wildcats of Europe, India, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and much of Africa excluding the Sahara Desert—serve as the immediate ancestors of modern domestic cats, with the African wildcat, Felis silvestris libyca, contributing the lion’s share to the domestic cat gene pool. Whereas scientists use the generic term “wild cats” to describe any wild felids, the term “wildcats” refers to a specific group of small cats found worldwide and from which the domestic cat evolved.

A breath-taking range of adaptability characterizes these wildcats. At least fifteen different species of them roam Europe and the Middle East to Asia, inhabiting heath, evergreen and hardwood forests, rugged steppes, semi-deserts and deserts, and tropical jungles. Within a particular species, great variation also may occur. The African wildcat’s striped tabby coat varies from dark gray to sandy grey-yellow, depending on whether it lives in the forests or drier areas. In addition to sporting coats that provide maximum camouflage and protection in a wide range of environments, wildcats worldwide also exhibit a range of dietary preferences that ensures their survival in these diverse habitats.

Although cats can and do function in daylight, their physiology prepares them especially well for life in from minimal light to what we humans consider total darkness. When cats hunt depends on both the food supply and the predator population. Small wildcats sleeping in tree hollows or small caves during the day neither compete directly for food with diurnal (light-preferring) species nor expose themselves to diurnal predators who might make a meal of them. Considering the wildcat’s small size compared to many diurnal competitors and predators, this nocturnal strategy confers a definite survival advantage.

However, when nocturnal cat meets diurnal human, problems may arise. Owner clashes with nocturnal feline behavior primarily involve one of three kinds of cats and situations:

  • stray, adult free-roaming animals
  • barn kittens or others born in environments with little human interaction
  • adult cats responding to the breeding season

Kathy adopted Ra from a local shelter after the Abyssinian’s previous owners either lost or abandoned him in a nearby seaside resort community. The cat survived by raiding dumpsters behind area restaurants and feeding on the rodents who congregated there at night. A few run-ins with some irate restauranteurs further reinforced the stray cat’s nocturnal habits. Oslo, on the other hand, readily adapted to Rick’s diurnal schedule until his first breeding season rolled around.

“But I had him neutered when he was six months old!” Rick protests.

Unfortunately for cat owners, the cat’s territorial nature (more on this later) takes precedence over any reproductive urges, meaning that the mere presence of other cats, regardless of their age, sex, or reproductive status, will suffice to set some cats off. As soon as the local free-roaming cat population geared up for the breeding season, Oslo knew it. Perhaps he tuned into ultrasonic “Come hither” or “Buzz off, creep” messages from other cats. Or maybe he picked up those same messages in the scent of cat urine wafting on the breeze.

“They can smell messages in urine?” Rick laughs incredulously. “You’re kidding!” In fact, many animals can detect very powerful scent hormones called pheromones that convey a treasure trove of information even to the neutered, housebound cat who’s never seen another cat since it left its mother and any litter mates. Moreover, the increased numbers and activity levels of cats outdoors at night during the breeding season increases the probability that these will alter the behavior of normally diurnal, housebound cats, too.

Regardless of the specific cause of the nocturnal behavior, most owners find it irritating to discover a cat perching on their heads trying to peer out the window at 2:00 a.m. Unfortunately most owners either get up and feed the cat, hoping it will feel sufficiently grateful or satiated to let them alone, or they punish it. Neither approach yields lasting results for the simple reason that both reward the unwanted behavior.

“How can punishing a cat reward it?” asks Rick as he hurriedly stashes the water pistol and rolled up newspaper he uses to punish Oslo under a pillow.

In these late-night situations, the cat seeks attention and anything the owner does provides that. Consequently, only avoiding the cat will eliminate the behavior.

“I’ll go crazy if I don’t get my sleep!” Rick vigorously protests.

A few other changes also can help Rick to reset Oslo’s clock.

One, he can delay feeding his pet until last thing at night. Like many cats, Oslo sleeps after he eats. If Rick feeds Oslo when he eats his own dinner, Oslo may nap afterward then wake up ready for action in the dead of night.

Two, Rick could lock the cat out of his bedroom at night. If Oslo scratches at the door, he can put strips of double-sided tape on the door to prevent this. (More on why this works later.)

Three, Rick could invest in a sound machine (approximately $100) to help block out the sound of other cats outdoors as well as his own cat yowling indoors. Sound machines produce “white” noise which their manufacturers claim sounds like rain or rushing water. However, it also sounds a lot like static, too, until you get used to it, something most people do within two to three days. Because of this some animals—and humans— will respond just as well to a radio tuned to static as a soundmachine. Regardless of the source, white noise blocks out many sounds and helps sooth animals upset by these.

Four, Rick can crate-train Oslo (a lot more on this in Chapter Three) so that Oslo perceives a pet carrier as his own private space. This will relieve Oslo of the burden of protecting Rick’s entire home from all those free-roaming cats broadcasting their threats and desires.

Because the cat’s nocturnal nature most certainly exists and can make itself known at any time, pause here and think about how you feel about the cat’s unique sense of time.

Wildcat Time Check

Think about your normal sleeping pattern. Are you a morning person or a night person? Do you work a swing-shift? How does your cat fit into your schedule? If it doesn’t, does this bother you? If you plan to get a new cat, when would you like it to be most active?

In addition to getting into trouble because he didn’t take Oslo’s wild heritage into account, Rick also forgot to ask about Oslo’s previous lifestyle when he picked up his new kitten. It turned out that the Norwegian Forest Cat’s breeder liked to stay up into the wee hours of the morning, a schedule that served to enhance Oslo’s nocturnal nature, too. Oslo didn’t see any of this as a problem because night time served as the perfect time for Oslo to protect his domain which was, after all, the name of the game.

The Feline Domain

Because of its relatively recent domesticity, any cat may express other primitive behaviors in conjunction with nocturnal displays, and this most commonly occurs when the cat feels vulnerable in its space for some reason. When Ra doesn’t feel well, he retreats under the couch or Kathy’s bed, coming out only at night to eat or drink, if then. He performs the same disappearing act when his owner introduces him to a new home or when a change occurs in her old one: a new baby or Significant Other, even a new rug or chair can upset him.

Why this occurs brings us to the three priorities that govern animal behavior:

  • Establish and protect the territory
  • Find food and water
  • Reproduce

While the cat’s ultimate goal remains to add its genes to the species gene pool, it can’t do that until it finds enough food and water to support itself and any offspring. And it can’t support itself and any offspring until it claims a space in which it can accomplish this goal successfully.

Imagine yourself a small predator who hunts in little or no light at the same time others hunt you. What characteristics would best enable you to do this?

“You’d need to know your territory inside out, upside down, and backwards so you could locate any food as quickly as possible, as well as escape any predators,” Kathy volunteers.

For us strongly visually-oriented humans, that means noticing all of the critical landmarks, perhaps even drawing a map or taking pictures. However, such visual cues won’t help us much if we need to make our way through that same space in the dark.

Although cats can see better in the dark that we can and also possess a much more highly developed sense of hearing, they don’t rely much on vision or hearing to secure their space. Instead they utilize their incredible sense of smell for this purpose because scent cues work just as well in the dark as in the light and last longer than sound.

To mark their territories, cats use scent glands in their feet to lay down trails, and similar glands on the side of the face and head to mark significant vertical objects. In this way, they create a safe scent-corridor they can follow through even the most complex environment in pitch darkness if necessary.

Because cats rely on their feet to mark their territories they like to keep them impeccably clean. This feline foot fetish gives rise to one of my favorite cat training aids: double-sided tape. (You can use loops of wide packaging tape sticky side out, but I find the double-sided tape much easier to work with.) Suppose Rick wants to keep Oslo off the counter, for example. He blocks off all but a particularly tantalizing expanse of it with empty cardboard boxes, then tapes the remainder. When Oslo jumps onto the counter, he sticks, hates it, and decides to get down.

This approach offers several distinct advantages to screaming at, squirting, or smacking the cat. It works twenty-four hours a day, even in the owner’s absence. It doesn’t hurt the cat, and it sets the cat up in such a way the animal chooses to stop the undesirable behavior. Not only do studies indicate that animals given a choice internalize any change faster, this works particularly well with cats because they respond defensively rather than submissively to punishment like dogs and other pack animals.

In addition to scent marks, cats also use urine, stool, and claw scratches to mark the boundaries of their territories. The pheromones in these secretions proclaim their species, sex, and reproductive status loudly and clearly to any other animal considering traveling through that space.

Although a wonderful system, scent-marking does pose some problems. Scent marks don’t last forever and it takes time and energy to refresh them. These basic truths, however, become much less of a problem when another behavioral trait exists.

“The cat’s solitary nature,” Rick correctly surmises.

Because it takes time and energy to mark a territory, a smart cat only marks a space big enough to support itself and any young. Consequently, wildcats normally take a dim view of other cats in their space.

In the past I tried to separate the cat’s territorial from its solitary nature, but the two play such a synergistic role in feline behavior I find it impossible to speak of one without mentioning the other. Did the cat’s territorial nature lead it to become solitary or vice versa? More likely the two characteristics co-evolved over time.

However, there’s no denying that the two behavioral traits exquisitely complement each other. In addition to solitary behavior diminishing the possibility of another cat snatching a share of the limited food supply, that behavior also reduces the chance that another cat’s scent trails could confuse the resident cat as it hunts or avoids predators itself.

Within the domestic habitat where more and more cats share less and less space, I recall two incidents that demonstrated what a critical role scent marking can play in interactions among cats. In the first, the owner had two cats: Mable, a strict housecat, and Sable, who went in and out. Every time Sable would go out, he would immediately spray the boundaries of his territory and rub his head on prominent fence posts and trees around the yard where all the other neighborhood cats had rubbed their heads, too. When he returned home, Mable would viciously attack him, then suddenly stop and go about her business.

Although the owner feared Mable suffered from a brain tumor, in reality the cat relied on scent to identify her feline companion. When Sable picked up the scent of other cats in the course of his own scent-marking, he masked his own identity and fooled Mable into thinking that a strange cat had violated her turf when he returned. Whether the close contact during the ensuing fracas produced other scent, texture, or taste cues that triggered recognition, I don’t know. I do know that when the owner washed Sable’s face when he came in, that stopped the behavior for a totally unexpected reason: he hated having his face washed so much, he stopped going out!

A second thought-provoking and poignant case also involved two cats, Rose and Tulip, who had been inseparable since birth. When Tulip died suddenly at age eight, Rose retreated under the owner’s bed and refused to budge.

Typically we view such cases almost romantically, saying the surviving cat grieves for the deceased one. However I believe something far more logical—and insidious—came into play here. Because the two cats had been together from day one, I suspect Rose had no awareness of her own scent. Consequently, when Tulip died and her scent faded, Rose lost her own identity, too. Because she didn’t recognize her own scent, she had to cope with two major territorial assaults simultaneously:

  • the literal loss of her “other half”
  • the existence of a phantom cat who went everywhere she did

Until Rose accepted the strange cat scent as her own, she barely ate or drank. Fortunately, however, this healthy, good-natured cat eventually adjusted.

Another variation on this theme may occur when one cat in a multiple cat household leaves the household for a matter of hours or days. The ensuing attack rather than welcome upon its return may result because the cats maintain such a tenuous territorial peace that the stay-at-home cat(s) immediately claim the departed cat’s space, then view the returning animal as an intruder. Other times, scents picked up at the veterinary clinic, groomer’s, or wherever the traveling cat went may mask its identity. In the latter case, spraying all of the cats with the same scent (flea spray or a bit of the owner’s cologne) may prevent the problem.

As we can see, while the feline territorial personality presents us with some of the most elegant, energy-efficient behavioral displays found in nature, these don’t always translate into human-feline domestic bliss. Because your views of feline territoriality definitely will affect how you interact with your cat, evaluate your own ideas about this primary feline behavior before continuing.

Territorial Evaluation

Observe your own and friends’ cats for signs of territorial behavior. Do certain cats appear to claim certain spots? Where are these places relative to the food and water? How do these animals react when others approach that space?

Oslo’s intense animosity toward all cats, combined with his spraying and clawing of drapes and furniture near windows and doors, led Rick to correctly conclude that his pet claimed the entire apartment as his territory. On the other hand, Kathy’s Abyssinian could care less how many cats, dogs, or people Kathy brings home—as long as they don’t go into her bedroom. If they do, he’ll either spray her bed to warn off the intruders or fight to defend the space.

In multiple cat households, some cats may divide the space by room—”The den is Snowy’s and Bourbon stays in our bedroom”—or by floor—”Hector’s the upstairs and Junie’s the downstairs cat.” Other cats will divide the house in layers with one cat spending most if its time on the floor, a second preferring counters, lower shelves, and the backs of furniture, and the third opting for the higher terrain of closet shelves and the tops of book cases. In-and-outdoor cats in the same household may declare the entire house neutral and establish their separate territories outside; or one may claim the inside and the other the outside; or they both may claim spaces both outdoors and in. In households where cats feel comfortable with their territorial situation, the areas around the food, water, and litter box become neutral zones where the animals co-exist peacefully. When cat’s don’t feel comfortable in their territories, though, owners quickly become aware of the feline solitary nature.

The Solitary Cat Pack

While some people doggedly insist on cramming the cat into a social mold like all other domestic species, cats just as doggedly—or rather, cattedly— refuse to conform to that mold. This human social projection probably occurs because these same people can’t comprehend what it means to live a solitary existence, a fact all those multiple cat households clearly supports. I can appreciate that because even those who devote their lives to studying feline behavior don’t claim to understand why cats interact with cats and other animals the way they do. Further complicating the picture, very few small wildcat studies exist and we know nothing about the social behavior and organization of Felis libyca, the domestic cat’s wild ancestor.

However, we do know that a solitary animal isn’t anti-social. Obviously a strictly solitary animal could never survive because it wouldn’t mate or raise its young. In reality, an almost mind-boggling degree of social diversity characterizes both wild and domestic feline behavior and, according to premier cat observer Leyhausen, this probably results from the cat’s self-domestication.

By taking this route, the cat became an opportunist capable of taking advantage of a wide range of conditions rather than a creature locked into a rigid pattern of behavior. Where other domestic species fall back on an ancestral social system when they become feral, cats may, but they also may opt for a completely different form of interaction. Kathy’s Abyssinian originally lived with two other cats in a mid-town apartment, but he became a loner when his owners abandoned him on the beach, an apparent reversion to his wildcat roots. Other owners tell of choosing a pet from a herd of barn cats only to watch that animal viciously reject every cat the owners try to add to their spacious quarters. Still others take in the local feline bully and he becomes the beloved patriarch of the household’s other three cats. Once solitary housecats may join highly structured barn cat societies or loose gangs in warehouses or city dumps.

While the cat’s incredible flexibility frustrates both scientists studying cats and those of us trying to understand and resolve their behavioral problems, that flexibility does enable these animals to adjust to an equally incredible variety of social situations. Remember how much power establishing and protecting the territory wields as the cat’s number one priority. As a small predator as well as prey who can’t count on the support of a pack or flock, the successful cat must possess the elasticity to adapt to a wide range of environments both physically and behaviorally. While the cat can walk alone, it doesn’t have to.

“Wait a minute!” Rick protests. ” Are you saying cats can live in groups because they’re solitary? That doesn’t make any sense!”

It does make sense in the context of those three priorities. Animals establish and protect a territory in order to find food and water so they can reproduce. Given a limited food supply, maintaining a relatively solitary existence on a relatively exclusive territory provides the optimum solution. However, as the amount and availability of food shifts in either direction, associating with other cats might enhance the cat’s chance of survival. If food becomes so scarce the cat can’t survive in its own territory, the ability to associate with another cat to ward off starvation would serve it well. Conversely, a cat who could get along with other cats would fare better in a small area with a plentiful food supply than a strictly solitary one.

A cat with social skills plus the ability to function as a solitary creature gains a distinct advantage over one born with a strictly solitary or social orientation. Mating and rearing young would prove a trial for strictly solitary animals, and they also would suffer when the amount or location of food varied from the optimum necessary to maintain their solitary status. On the other hand, the purely social animal lacking solitary survival skills would become vulnerable when separated from the group.

Solitary animals also appear to internalize early lessons more quickly and strongly that social animals. This allows the queen (mother cat) to teach her young the basics of survival in a relatively short time, a tremendous advantage if she finds herself in a territory with a limited food supply. It also benefits the kittens who learn to fend for themselves at an early age.

On the downside, however, while this enables cats to learn and retain a great deal when kittens, it may create problems if these early lessons become so firmly entrenched the older cat resists beneficial changes. This poses no problems for a kitten raised in environments rich with varied experiences who may face a life without a reinforcing pack to tell it right from wrong. However, it may result in permanent psychological damage for the stimulus- or learning-deprived animal. When this occurs in the wild, the animal dies. When it occurs in the domestic arena, the animal requires a tremendous amount of often highly specialized support.

Because we humans rank as a social species and tend to view all members of the animal kingdom through our own eyes, we need to evaluate our feelings about solitary behavior carefully.

Solitary Check-Up

Think about any existing or potential cat’s personality. Do you prefer more social or solitary feline qualities? What social or solitary behaviors attract you? Which ones could you live without?

When Rick completes this exercise, he discovers that he really likes Oslo’s more solitary characteristics.

“I couldn’t deal with a clingy cat,” he declares with certainty.

On the other hand, Kathy realizes that she merely tolerates Ra’s solitary behaviors because she finds their social interactions so rewarding.

Even though Rick and Kathy view their pets’ solitary natures quite differently, understanding why their pets act the way they do enables these owners to appreciate the full range of this unique feline characteristic. Once they do that, then they can tackle one of the cat’s most troublesome behaviors, its predatory nature.

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