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Feline Foibles or Human Misunderstandings?

A behaviorist discusses how the findings of modern feline behavior research can help pet owners encourage friendships among their cats and acclimate them to unnatural human environments

A behaviorist discusses how the findings of modern feline behavior research can help pet owners encourage friendships among their cats and acclimate them to unnatural human environments

Although cats have been domesticated for more than 4,000 years, we know shamefully little about their normal behavior patterns, the factors that contribute to behavior problems, and the best ways to resolve those problems. A common behavior issue cat owners face is fighting among family cats. Improved methods for both preventing and resolving these feline disputes would be helped by a better understanding of cat social behavior, including an examination of what constitutes normal feline social relationships and the factors that influence whether cats will form social bonds with one another.

It is perplexing to both owners and behaviorists alike that an individual cat is able to get along well with some other family cats, but not with all. Recent research has shed some light on this question. In a study of neutered, indoor-only house cats, there were no differences in agonistic or friendly behaviors between cats based on gender pair combinations. (1) This negates the belief that any particular gender pair (male/female, for example) is more likely to get along better than any other.


Introductions, Please?

Steps to follow when adding another feline to the family.

The same study also found that the aggression between cats decreased significantly after they had lived together for more than eight months. Other research found that few affiliative behaviors (“allorubbing” and “allogrooming”—terms describing cats’ scent-sharing behaviors) were seen in a group of cats living communally in a shelter until the cats had been together for at least a year. (2)

These findings hold particular significance for owners introducing a cat to resident cats. First, cats require a significant amount of time to learn to get along with each other. Owners who expect cats to quickly develop a friendly relationship with each other are likely to be disappointed, putting at least one cat at risk for not staying in the home. Second, cat-to-cat introductions should be very controlled and implemented gradually by providing opportunities for the cats to watch or sniff each other without direct interaction. Most owners rush cat-to-cat introductions, and in fact many do not implement any formal introduction procedures at all. This definitely contributes to social stress and probably makes the development of fighting problems more likely. Veterinarians and shelters can assist owners by providing detailed information about introducing cats to one another. (See the sidebar for a sample protocol.)

Socializing the Shy and Scaredy Cats

A significant finding that was emphasized by all of the scientists conducting these research studies is the tremendous individual variation among cats in their social behavior and preferences for group or individual living—something that anyone working with cats has easily observed. One factor likely contributing to these individual differences is the degree of socialization a cat has received; it is well-known that early socialization has a tremendous effect on an animal’s social behavior later in life. A number of behaviorists have independently arrived at the conclusion that the importance of kitten socialization is a topic that is all too often ignored; though many veterinarians strongly emphasize the need for socialization during puppy appointments, the subject of socializing kittens and juvenile cats is generally overlooked.

Based on behavioral observations, it seems that many cats are undersocialized. They exhibit fearful reactions to visitors, new environments, changes in existing environments, and car rides. Many cats are difficult to handle in the clinic or shelter, at least in part because they are stressed, anxious, and defensive by the time they arrive. An innovative socialization program called Kitty Kindy (3) encourages owners to bring their kittens to socialization sessions at the clinic. Here, kittens learn important social skills, including how to play with other kittens, and owners learn about their cats and their behavior.

Related to socialization is the idea of environmental enrichment for cats. The practice of keeping cats indoors, especially in urban or suburban areas, has long been advocated by many veterinarians, behaviorists, and animal shelters wishing to protect cats from harm and prevent them from becoming a nuisance to the community. But many professionals have also begun to question whether a crowded, multi-cat, indoor environment can adequately meet a cat’s behavioral needs. One study found that indoor cats may live at densities as high as 50 times the highest densities observed in studies of outdoor cats. (4) To protect cats while also catering to their natural desire for a taste of the outdoors, some experts are increasingly considering encouraging cat owners to allow their cats access to the outdoors in a safe, confined manner. Outdoor cat enclosures—and do-it-yourself plans for building them—are becoming more widely available commercially.

Potty Training for Kitties

Even more prevalent than fighting and fear-related behavior problems are litter box problems, which top the list of common cat behavior issues. Many litter box problems are the result of the cat’s changing surface and location preferences, often combined with an aversion to the litter box. The type of litter used is often one of several crucial factors that determine whether a cat will use the litter box reliably. Studies have repeatedly shown that cats generally prefer fine-grain litters that feel soft. (5) Unfortunately, several new litter products now on the market have not taken this research into account. New pearl and crystal-type pellets seem to have been developed with the cat owner in mind, rather than the cat. The pellets are relatively large and composed of rigid silica material, resulting in a texture and feel that is just the opposite of what most cats have been found to prefer. Preliminary results from a study of shelter cats found that when given a choice between clumping and pearl litters, the majority preferred the clumping. (6)

When litter box problems stem from material or location preferences that are not being accommodated by the current setup, the first step is to compare the litter box with the soiled areas to analyze which preferences the soiled areas cater to that the litter box does not. Results of this comparison commonly show that the soiled materials are often softer than clay or pellet-type litter (e.g., carpet, clean clothes, a bed); that the soiled locations provide better protection from other family pets; or that the locations are more accessible than the litter box.

A common reason for the development of litter box aversions is a dirty litter box. With many owners’ hectic and busy lifestyles, self-cleaning litter boxes are becoming a more popular option. Design improvements have made these litter boxes more reliable; they seem to be tolerated well by most cats. These are now available in a mega-size and with “tents” that provide a cover for those cats preferring a more secluded box.

When the problems are the result of litter box aversions, medication is not the normal course of action. Medication however, can be helpful for other types of behavior problems.

As we learn more about the normal behavior of the domestic cat, we will have greater success in resolving problems when they do occur.

Suzanne Hetts, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the author of Pet Behavior Protocols: What To Say, What To Do, When to Refer.

Literature Cited

1. Barry, K. J. and Crowell Davis, S. 1999. Gender differences in the social behavior of the neutered indoor-only domestic cat. Applied Animal Behavior Science 64: 193-211.

2. Bradshaw, J.W.S., 1992. The behaviour of the domestic cat. CAB International, Wallingford, U.K.

3. Seskel, K. 1997. Kitty Kindy. pp. 28-30 in Mills, D. S., Heath, S. E. and L.J. Harrington, Eds. Proceedings of the First International Conference on Veterinary Behavioural Medicine, Birmingham, U.K., Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, Great Britian.

4. Bernstein, P.L. and Strack, M. 1996. A game of cat and house: spatial patterns and behavior of 14 domestic cats (Felis catus) in the home. Anthrozo??_1): 25-39.

5. Borchelt, P. L. 1991. Cat elimination behavior problems. pp. 257-264 in Marder, A. R. and V.L. Voith, Eds. Advances in companion animal behavior. Veterinary Clinics of North America, Small Animal Practice 21 (2). W. B. Saunders, Phil.

6. Neilson, J.C., Unpublished data, personal communication.


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