Understanding Cat Behavior in Fifty Minutes?
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2009
João Telhado, DVM
Vice-Presidente AMVEBBEA Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro, Instituto de Veterinária, Seropédica, Rio de Janeiro, RJ

Paraphrasing Gertrude Stein (1922) "A cat is a cat, is a cat, is a cat". This simple truth must be kept in mind when we try to understand the domestic cat. But how can a human being understand the behavior of such different species like the domestic cat?

Talking about human consciousness, Thomas Nagel (1974) stated that it was impossible for a human being to answer the question "What is it like to be a bat?". He tried to show that even with modern methods of investigation, the mind of the others, stays a mystery without answer. In spite of this impossibility and the shortness of time, I'll try to give some guidelines to help you understand, and to be able to explain to cat owners, the domestic cat behavior. Unfortunately I can't explain to the cat its owner's behavior.

The domestic cat is a carnivorous, which simultaneously is a predator and a prey. Prisoner in this duality, which we could consider distressing, the cat has tools which enable it to be a great killer at the same time that it is an escape master. Cats are adapted to switch from an affiliative behavior to an agonistic in seconds, surprising the human being. How can we define the relationship between the owner and the cat? Some will say that the cats are ours prisoners, others will say that the cats are members of the family, and both are right. Can we speak about freedom when speaking about domestic animals? Can we speak about family when we refer to our relationship with another species?

Anyway, when well socialized, the majority of the pet cats show a preference for not being alone, staying close with the owners or other familiar animals. The social companionship owner-cat can be in the form of gentle petting and social stroking, feeding, grooming and play. The misconception that cats are solitary animals probably derived from the comparison with the dog. Very often we heard owners complaining about the little attention their cats pay to them or that the cat only comes when it wants something from them. That's not true, causing more and more problems of separation anxiety in cats. I defend cats can tolerate more or less the isolation, but it doesn't mean they love this situation. I do not recommend having only one cat, I believe two compatible cats will be fine, no more than that. We have seen serious problems with the cat "lovers" that have thirty or forty cats living together. I must emphasize that a colony of cats is a closed well established group of related or very familiar animals that stay close together because they wanted and derived benefits from this situation. Unfortunately, there is a tendency of cat owners to get more and more cats, after all they are so easy to care for and "I love them so much". The problem here is one of animal welfare, and cats living in unstable changing groups, without any possibility of control over the physical and social environment, have high levels of distress and behavior problems. Cats, like humans, have preferred associates in the group, with whom they engage in greater quantities of affiliative behavior. The preference is facilitated by being relate and familiar. Even intact males can form this kind of bound.

If you want to try introducing a new cat in the household colony, you have to have in mind that the new cat is a stranger and a threat to the other house cats. Although, originally, solitary hunters, cats are social animals, and when food supplies are adequate they may form organized social groups, with the related females forming the social core of the group, whereas males emigrate when they reach 1 to 2 years of age. Colonies are fairly insular and strangers are generally not welcome. Unfamiliar cats can be aggressively driven away. In feral colonies, strangers cats (cats that are not members of the colony) are actively rejected. Males that attempt to immigrate into a colony must persistently engage in interactions on the periphery of the colony for several weeks before they are accepted as regular members of the colony. So don't waste your time forcing the cats to become friends, instead let them get familiar very slowly, maintaining them in different rooms, so they start the process of recognizing (by smell and sounds) without the possibility of physical contact. Rub all the cats with the same towel to develop a group smell. The last step of this process is letting the cats interact through a net door. If everything looks fine put silicon nail caps on them and let them finally have physical contact.

We have to remember that cats from a well establish group can become unfamiliar when one of them is removed from the house. This feline may return to the house like "a different cat". I have had more than one case of cats that lived together very well, until one of them had to be submitted to a surgery, neutering for example, or going to the pet shop to be bathed (and almost always perfumed), and when returning home is attacked by the other cat. We must understand that the returning cat is not the same that left, from the feline point of view, because he hasn't the same smell, in consequence of the surgery, of the medication, of the perfume or because it lost the group odor. So when returning a cat home remembers to introduce it slowly, but in this case a little faster than with a foreign cat.

Within a group of cats, a social hierarchy can exist. When cats first establish their relationships, overt aggression may occur (hissing, chasing, swatting). Once the relationship is established, overt aggression is the exception as long as there are no environmental or physical changes, and this is an important thing to remember to cat owners.

One cause of intercat aggression is when a high-ranking cat spends significant time and energy guarding resources, even when is not using them. On feline subordinance hierarchy, the subordinate cat defer to dominant cat, by looking away, crouching, moving away or lowering the tail laterally to a hindlimb (sometimes in very a subtle way that's not perceive by the owner). That why it's very important, in multicat households, to have more than one cat station (water, food and litter tray) in more than one room.

When the resources are abundant, the friendly aspect of a relationship between cats predominate and eliminate the need to compete (they will eat and rest side by side. In other situations cats rarely or never directly interact with each other, they tolerate one another. In these situations, cats probably have an unfriendly relationship but simply avoid direct interaction rather than fight with.

Another issue we face when dealing with pet cats is that of the specific social skill, that results in an individual cat being a successful member of a group. It is learned, not inherited. So the primary socialization to people and other living beings, from 3 to 9 weeks of age, is fundamental but unfortunately frequently missed in Brazil. It's very common to see cats living in apartments that never go out, better saying aren't socialized at all, nor have any kind of environment enrichment. It's worthwhile to remember that free living cats spent almost 25% of their daytime looking for food. An apartment cat doesn't have necessity of doing it, so it's our obligation to provide something for cats to do in this free time. Physical and mental stimulation is one of the priorities we must have when thinking about our pets. Spend some time explaining to cat owners how they can make environment enrichment. It can be a good idea to suggest a visit to the local Zoo. Cats can be taught some tricks, and they appear to enjoy it.

Respect, commitment and patience, must be in the base of our relationship with cats. After all: "A cat is a cat, is a cat, is a cat".

Speaker Information
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Joao Telhado, DVM
Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro
Instituto de Veterinaria
Seropedica, Rio de Janeiro, RJ

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