What Every Veterinarian Should Know About Cats
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2005
Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, ABS Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist
Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, Psychiatry Department, University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine
Philadelphia, PA, USA


Most veterinarians still received no training in behavioral medicine in the course of their veterinary education. In North America where behavioral medicine has been a board certified specialty for over a decade more than 2/3 of the veterinary schools still have no full-time program headed by a board certified specialist. This means that there has been no net increase in full-time, research and clinical programs in 25 years! This is appalling because behavioral problems kill more animals every year than do infectious, neoplastic, and endocrine diseases combined (New et al., 2000; Scarlett et al., 1999)! No where is this epidemic more apparent than in the domestic cat.

The impetus for this talk was the development and publication of the AAFP's Feline Behavior Guidelines (2004), a 2 year project sponsored by Hill's Pet Nutrition. These guidelines were developed, in part, to redress the tremendous gap in knowledge that veterinarians have about cats and their behavior. The approach listed in these Guidelines now represents the state-of-the-art for veterinarians in practice. For the purposes of this talk, the focus will be on social systems, social interactions, and signaling behavior.

Normal social systems

We tend to think that most pets that are relinquished to shelters are neglected, unwanted, ill, or, in the case of cats, 'feral' or 'wild'; however, the data don't support this impression. Most relinquished pets have been seen by veterinarians for routine appointments in the past year (Hetts et al., 2004, Scarlett et al., 2002). This same veterinary population loses 15% of its client base annually (Patronek and Dodman, 1999). In large part this is because veterinarians: (1) do not understand normal canine and feline behaviors and so cannot counsel clients on early deviations from normal, (2) don't routinely ask about pet behavior problems, as they do for systemic conditions. The first step in redressing these issues requires that vets understand normal feline behavior.

Cats are an extraordinarily social species. They are just not social in the same sense humans and dogs are. Cats were never fully domesticated, and so were not subject to strong selection for specific suites of behavior, as were dogs. Cats were opportunistic in their historic interactions with humans: anywhere there are humans and stored food (e.g., grain) there are rodents. Cats eat 6-8 small meals a day, so rodents are perfect food sources for cats. Because cats ate rodents, they also helped control disease that was carried by fleas living on the rodents. This is not a trivial function when one considers that the plague decreased the genetic variation in humans in Europe by ~25%, and that worries of a new, more virulent plague are public health care concerns today.

Because cats were not selected by us for specific behavioral jobs as were breeds of dogs, we have not paid attention to their social organization and signaling, and in many cases it is this lack of attention that has contributed to their behavioral problems.

Domestic cats are organized socially much like their early ancestors, and we still see this social system manifest in the Northern African Wild Cat, who looks very much like a large tabby. Feline social systems are more flexible than we commonly believe, and the extent to which the cats appear social and engage in active group behaviors depends on the resource environment and group size (Beaver, 2003). If there are sufficient food resources to support multiple cats, free-living cats will always choose to live in complex social groups largely comprised of extended families. (e.g., Dards, 1978, 1983, Kerby and Macdonald, 1988, Macdonald, 1983, Macdonald and Apps, 1978, Macdonald et al., 1987; Mirmovitch, 1995; Macdonald et al., 2000; Natoli, 1985a, 1985b;Natoli and de Vito, 1991; Natoli et al., 2001; Yamane, 1996). Because the feline social system is a matrilineal one, the cornerstone of the feline social grouping is the queen and her daughters and sisters.

Contrary to common belief, cats not only recognize individuals in their social group, but they have different interactions with different individuals (Bradshaw and Hall, 1999). The easiest of these to identify for most clients will be the preferred associate relationships (Crowell-Davis, 2002; Curtis et al., 2003; Crowell-Davis et al., 2004). These are the relationships where cats will groom each other, choose to seek each other out and be seen in each others' presence, and sleep together. These cats will often wrap their tails over some body part of the other cat. Queens often engage in cooperative care and rearing of their kittens, and sub-adult offspring--including males--often help.

Because groups of cats are based on related females, introduction of new cats may be met with some resistance. It is for this reason that clients should be cautioned that bringing home a new cat may be an upsetting situation for their household. New cats do not just show up in normal cat social groups. That said, there are reports of new animals being accepted into the group after a lot of signaling and work on the part of both the newcomer and the resident cats (Macdonald et al., 1987). This does not happen quickly, and even in free-ranging cat groups, where the newcomer can retreat, the process can take weeks. What does this tell us about the concerns we should have for introducing new cats into homes where cats already live? It tells us that (a) introductions of new cats--especially in small spaces--take time and (b) that if people have a choice, they may wish to adopt a ready-made social grouping (the mother and 1 or 2 kittens).

Social hierarchies exist within established groups of cats, but they are not rigid, and should not be characterized by violence. When cats first meet overt aggression (e.g., hissing, chasing, swatting) can occur. Once the relationship is established, overt aggression should be the exception, as long as there are no environmental or physical changes. Social relationships can change throughout life. As with all social species, while the capacity to be social is inborn, specific social skills that result in an individual cat being a successful member of a group are learned. And for cats, the situation is even more complex: the extent to which you can learn may depend on how outgoing you are, and the extent to which cats are bold or outgoing depends on paternal genes (McCune, 1995).

Because cats were never deliberately 'domesticated' the period during which they are most sensitive to learning about new social experiences (e.g., socialization, the sensitive period) is much shorter than it is for the species with which clients will be most familiar, dogs. If cats do not experience new people, new animals, and novel circumstances between 2 and 9 weeks of age, the risk of them developing problems associated with such stimuli is huge (Bradshaw et al., 1999; Karsh, 1983; Karsh and Turner, 1988). Kittens that are exposed to people before 9 weeks will often be more willing to approach people when they are adults (Lowe and Bradshaw, 2001).

Clients also need to be aware that cats, like dogs, have different periods for sexual v. social maturity. Social maturity is about making decisions that are complex, minimizing the costs of social errors, and working within the group. This period does not occur in cats until ~2-4 years of age, whereas sexual maturity occurs at 6 months. Social maturity is the period of time during which brain neurochemistry is changing, and is for this reason that clients may find the cats more difficult than that had been in the past, and may discover that littermates will begin to fight. In the case of pathological behavior, social maturity and the neurochemical changes within it, seem to be intimately involved. It is important that clients understand this so that they can know what to look for and to seek help at the first signs of any concern. Clients cannot do this if they don't know what normal behaviors are and at what times they might change.

Feline communication

Cats communicate through visual, tactile, olfactory and auditory means. Visual signaling includes body posture tail, ear, and head position, and willingness to make eye contact. Tactile communication includes rubbing against others, including people, grooming, and nose-touching, which is used as a greeting. Auditory communication includes the purr, which occurs primarily during contact with another individual; the trill or chirrup, and meow are used as greeting calls. Because cats have such a keen sense of smell, olfactory communication is very important. Olfactory communication in the form of fecal or urine marking or spraying is often--but not always--normal behavior, which clients find may find objectionable.

Client expectations

Unless clients have some insight into what such signals mean to the cat, they will often not invest time in working with the cat or in meeting the cat's needs. Research has shown that clients who best understand their cat's signaling behaviors, play and interact better with their cats and have fewer behavior problems with them (Lowe and Bradshaw, 2001). Veterinarians can encourage this type of outcome by educating themselves and their clients about feline behavior. One of the easiest ways to do this is to begin to ask about the cat's behaviors at every visit. A sample of questions that should be useful to the client and vet alike is found in Table 1 which can be found in Feline Behavior Guidelines (AAFP, 2004).

Table 1. Behavioral Assessment: Questions to Ask at Every Veterinary Visit

When obtaining a history, encourage early detection or prevention of behavior problems by asking the following questions:

 Does your cat urinate or defecate outside of the box?

 Does your cat spray? (Spraying occurs when a cat backs up to a vertical surface, kneads his or her feet, and flicks the tail tip while projecting urine.)

 Does your cat show signs of aggression to people, including hissing, biting, or scratching? To any specific family members? To strangers?

 Does your cat exhibit any fearful behaviors that concern you?

 Does your cat show any destructive behaviors, such as scratching or chewing objects in the home?

 Does your cat have any problematic interactions with other cats or pets in the household?


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Speaker Information
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Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, ABS Certified Applied Animal
Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA

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