Territorial Behavior and Problems
Do you ever wonder if maybe you're the one losing your mind and your cat is quite normal? Why do they do this to us? We love them, in fact we worship them, but still they deliberately leave puddles in our shoes, on our pillows, in the bathtub. When we come home 15 minutes late, they noisily protest that dinner was not served on time. But when we apologetically offer a gourmet feast, they turn away smugly denying us the opportunity to alleviate our guilt. Why do they pathetically cry to be let outside, and before you've barely shut the door, they're anxiously waiting to be let back in?
It may be comforting to know that cats all over the world do these things. You're not being singled out and picked on. There is no feline conspiracy. So before accusing your cat of being neurotic, or before booting kitty out of your home, let's examine a few things about cat psychology.
This is Part One in a series of articles that will explain why cats do the things they do. Fortunately, we'll never know or even come close to knowing everything. The feline mystique is what often attracts us to our cats and makes them so fun and interesting to live with. But it sure would be nice if we could understand them enough to stop them from urinating in our closet!
This issue's article will cover the cat's sense of smell. Scent plays a vital role in cat behavior and their sense of territory.
Cats have an incredible sense of smell. They can easily identify the odor of catnip when its concentration is 1 part per billion! Kittens are born deaf and blind but their sense of smell is already sharp and working. Within one day after birth, they can distinguish between their own home and another. They also lay claim to their own nipple and suckle from it exclusively. They know which one belongs to them by its unique smell. A 3 week old kitten placed 3 feet away from his home base will be lost if he can't smell his way back, even though he can see his mother and litter-mates!
Kittens are extremely impressionable. If they do not experience and become accustomed to a variety of smells, they will have a difficult time adjusting to changes in adulthood. Likewise, if they associate a traumatic or painful experience with a particular scent, they will most likely react negatively every time they encounter it in adulthood. For example, some cats can never be taken to a groomer. Under normal circumstances, they are affectionate and trusting. But one whiff of the grooming room and they turn into ferocious animals that not even the owner can approach. Therefore, the importance of early socialization with routine handling and care cannot be overemphasized. A part of the socialization process is assuring that the experience in not overly traumatic.
Smell is vital to recognition. Most of us witness this phenomenon when we take one of our cats to the vet. Upon returning home, the cat is growled and hissed at and occasionally attacked by the cats that stayed home. They don't recognize their buddy returning home because he smells different. It's as if a new and strange cat has walked right into their home! A mother cat will even kill her own kittens if they should suddenly smell foreign.
Cats have scent glands along the tail, on each side of their forehead, on their lips, chin and on the underside of their front paws. They use these glands to scent mark their territory. Every time your cat passes by the refrigerator or the sofa and rubs up against it, he is saying, "This is mine. This belongs here. I belong with these things." When your cat scratches your furniture or his scratching post, he is also leaving his scent there from the glands in his paws.
Your cat will rub up against you and other companion pets for a scent exchange. While depositing his scent on you, he is also picking up your scent, which he will carefully lick and taste off his fur. (And we thought he was just grooming himself!)
If an indoor cat accidentally gets outside or if you move to a new location with your outdoor cat, it is very common that they will become lost - even if they are only 10 feet away from home. If they have not had the opportunity to scent mark their outdoor territory, they will not know where they are or how to return home.
Cats that are not adequately socialized as kittens can react badly to changes in their environment and intrusions of unfamiliar smelling objects, people or animals. A new piece of furniture can be viewed as an invasion of their territory. Some cats will hide from it for days. Others will immediately rub up against it to scent mark it. And some cats will feel so threatened that they will go to an extreme form of scent marking - urine marking.
Once a cat has urine marked, the scent must be immediately and thoroughly removed. We may clean it to our nose's satisfaction, but your cat and his keen senses will still be able to smell it. Remember the cats sense of smell is ultra sensitive. Your male cat may smell a female cat in heat from blocks away. The scent may come wafting in through an air conditioning duct or fireplace vent. If you move to a home where another cat has already left a strong scent, your cat may mark over those areas. Some cats will even attack their owner if the owner comes home with the smell of another cat on his/her clothing!
Cats are territorial by nature and they identify their territory by scent. The more you can socialize your cat as a kitten, the less likely this problem will occur in adulthood. Keep this in mind when moving with your cat, boarding him, taking him to the vet or groomer, bringing home new furniture, or bringing home a new friend.
Try to make your cat feel as non-threatened as possible by using familiar scents. For example, before bringing in a new piece of furniture, rub it down with some of your cat's bedding or even your own bedding.
If you have a veterinary appointment, take both cats even though only one will be treated. If one cat has a prolonged stay, then before bringing him home, have him groomed to wash away the peculiar smells of the hospital. In addition, rub kitty down with a towel that your other cat has been sleeping on recently.
When moving, you can help make the transition smoother for your cat by applying the same principle. Set up one room in your new house to be as similar to kitty's favorite room in your other house. Take along that old sofa even though you were planning to discard it. Kitty needs it now and you can always dump it later when he has made the adjustment to your new home. Bring kitty straight from your old house directly to this special room. Once he feels comfortable and the rest of your house is in order, then let him out. But don't let him go outdoors until he really accepts and feels at home indoors. Then allow him short supervised outings in your yard. Never leave him unattended until he has become familiar with his new outdoor territory.
Social Structure and Behavior
Are cats social? Are cats solitary animals? Are they independent? Will a cat accept another cat into its home? Do cats fight for dominance? Are cats trainable? The answer to these questions is both yes and no.
Cats are indeed a solitary species. But they can and do live in groups. This seems confusing to us because we are social animals and have a difficult time understanding and accepting a different social structure. Our other companion pet, the dog, is also a social or pack animal. He fits right in with our way of thinking and living. The cat does not.
We tend to look at our pets as little people with human emotions and needs. When our cat does not accept or become friends with the new cat we bring home, we automatically think something is wrong and that both cats are unhappy. That's because we're superimposing on the cat our standards for "happiness."
Cats can live in groups but they don't need to. For social/pack animals such as humans and dogs, living and functioning as a group is a necessity. The process of domestication facilitates social interaction of cats with other cats and humans. Kittens are usually quite friendly and playful with other cats and their human family. They participate in family functions. We perpetuate these kitten qualities through ongoing care and play with them. The kitten matures physically, but mentally retains kitten-like behavior. Cats that retain kitten-like behavior adjust to and probably prefer group living.
Some people describe cats as untrainable. Again that's from the human perspective. Of course a cat is trainable. What makes a cat appear untrainable is the fact that it will perform what it was trained to do on the basis of whether or not it wants to do it. Because the cat is not a pack animal, there is no inherent need or desire for the cat to comply with anyone's wishes but its own. We humans have a difficult time accepting this because we relate as pack animals. A social group has a set of hierarchies and each individual has its place. There is an inherent need to be loyal, to belong, to show subordination/compliance to a superior member of the group. Dogs respond to peer pressure. Cats do not. Because dogs can be bullied and intimidated into obedience, we expect that the cat should too. If you try to train a cat using pain-avoidance techniques that are often used in dog training, the only "pain" the cat will avoid is you! Thus making the cat appear aloof and untrainable. As an editorial note, I strongly disapprove of punishment in dog training.
However, I mention these methods because they are historically used by dog trainers who haven't learned that there are better, gentler and more humane methods. See my book, Manners for the Modern Dog for these gentler methods.
Fighting for dominance is rare. Cats are more likely to fight to defend their territory. Cats generally do not like confrontation. They go to extremes to avoid one another in order to avoid possible confrontation. Free ranging cats frequently have overlapping territories with a network of shared pathways. If one cat sees another cat on the path, he will wait until that cat is gone before going any further himself. If the two cats see each other at the same time, either they will both try to out-wait the other, or one or both will turn around and return the way they came. They will go through this ritual of avoidance even if one cat has already established itself as dominant over the other.
Cats do not use their dominant or subordinate rank to control each other. A dominant cat will allow a subordinate cat to pass first on the pathway. A dominant cat will not take food away from a subordinate cat. Cats seem to prefer non-confrontation. If a confrontation does occur, it is usually a noisy ritual of aggressive displays, rather than actual tooth and nail combat.
Part 1 dealt with the importance of scent, territory and early socialization. Before introducing a new cat into your home, it is best to review these issues. If either cat has not been adequately socialized, the chances are high that they will not accept one another. If you are not sure how much socialization your cat received as a kitten, observe her behavior and temperament right now. Does she welcome strangers coming into your home? Does she hide for days after they have left? Is your cat traumatized if you bring home a new piece of furniture? If your cat seems to prefer being the only cat, then you should respect that and not try to change your cats preference.
When introducing a new cat, try to find one that has lived with cats before. It is best to introduce a cat that is different in age and sex to your resident cat. Introducing a kitten is ideal because it will be the least threatening to your cat. However, if your cat is a senior citizen, spare it the nuisance of a rambunctious kitten and get an older, mellow adult instead.
Fighting is less likely when cats are on unfamiliar territory. So bring your new cat home in a carrier and keep him confined to a single room for a few days. This will allow the new cat a chance to become familiar with his new territory. Provide him with his own food/water bowls, toys, litter box, scratching post and bedding. It is important that he feels secure in his new territory before meeting your resident cat.
Begin the introduction by letting the two cats get used to the smell of each other. Bring some of the resident cats bedding into the new cat's room. Take some of the new cat's bedding and put it where your resident cat can smell it. Keep exchanging or rotating their bedding. Cats are more likely to accept that which smells familiar to them. Let the cats sniff each other from under the door. Give them plenty of time to adjust to each other's scent. If neither cat acts like it wants to break the door down to kill the other, then it is time to begin leaving the door open.
Eventually the new cat will creep out of its room and inevitably meet the resident cat. As per normal behavior described earlier, both cats will probably flee from each other to avoid confrontation. Their retreat away from each other may be preceded with a noisy bout of hissing and growling. Rarely is there an actual life threatening fight. The new cat will retreat to his room where he can rebuild his confidence to venture out again. The resident cat will not likely enter the new cats room because it bears the scent of the newcomer.
Don't force your new cat and resident cat to meet. They will do so on their own terms when they are ready. Don't be upset if the new cat or your resident cats remains in hiding for a few days. Most of their first encounters will appear hostile to you, but it is best not to interfere. If after a few months they do not work things out by themselves, do not intervene to try to make them get along. Your resident cat simply might not be suited to have another cat in the house. A medication called Clomipramine (Clomicalm) has been shown to have some value in alleviating inter-cat aggression in multi-cat households. However, if two cats continuously fight, it is best to separate them permanently. Cats are not pack animals and do not need to work out a social hierarchy to survive.
Predatory Behavior and Problems
Cats are born with a hunting and chasing instinct. But they are not necessarily born hunters that kill for food. Killing and eating prey are generally learned behaviors. Hunger will not automatically teach a cat to kill. A cat can be a skillful mouse killer and yet never eat a single mouse or even desire to eat one.
Kittens are programmed from birth to chase. Through play, they develop the coordination and timing needed to successfully capture their target. They learn to adjust their speed to the speed of moving objects. They learn to gauge distance by pouncing. Play gives the kitten a chance to learn to make judgments by experience.
The mother cat teaches her kittens to kill to eat. Her first lesson consists of bringing home dead prey and consuming it in front of the kittens. Soon they learn to join in. At the end of this stage, she brings the dead prey home and leaves it for the kittens to eat on their own. Cats will not only do this for their own litter, but for another cat's kittens as well. Many cats (especially spayed females) will provide this lesson to their human owners. Thus, bringing home dead prey and dropping it at our feet.
The second lesson is bringing home partially dead prey and finishing off the kill in front of the kittens. The kittens are then allowed to practice their skills and learn to kill the wounded, slow-moving prey themselves. Gradually more prey is brought home until the kittens become skilled at catching and killing them. Finally the kittens accompany the mother and learn to hunt and kill completely on their own.
Why do cats often appear to torture or play with their catch before killing it? There are several theories. One theory is that these cats lack confidence. They may still be wary of their prey which if not killed quickly can fight and bite back. Another theory is that domestic cats who live in a relatively rodent-free environment lack the opportunity to catch real live prey. When they finally do catch a mouse, they want to prolong the "great" event as much as possible.
If socialization occurs extremely early, it is possible for cats to form friendships with prey animals. Even if a kitten grows up with a hamster or mouse, the two should never be left unattended. If the cat becomes over stimulated, it may suddenly attack and kill its friend without remorse. Generally, it is better not to try to force these natural enemies to become friends.
Cats pose a threat to the song birds in our gardens. Recent studies indicate that cats kill a minimum of 55 million birds in the UK alone!! If your cat must be outdoors, please put a small bell on your cat's break-away collar. This at least will hopefully warn birds of the arrival of your cat and give them ample time to fly away.
Predators living in a "sterile" environment can cause problems. With no real prey to hunt, your cat will still need to express this natural behavior. The result is cats who pretend that people are prey. They play-attack wiggling toes and fingers. They chase imaginary prey up and down the drapes, across table tops and wreck havoc in the process.
You can vent this pent up energy in play with your cat. Find enticing, exciting toys and give your cat the opportunity to hunt, pounce and "kill" these things. Pet stores are filled with toys that move, roll and bounce erratically for your cats entertainment. Toys attached to the end of wands, wires, and string can be waved, dragged and waggled in front of kitty. All these toys and games are supposed to simulate moving prey and stimulate your cat's predatory nature. Take time to play these games with your cat and your cat will also be less likely to pounce on and bite you in play. An exercised, contented cat will be less likely to go into a wild frenzy of phantom prey chasing in the middle of the night.
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