Cat Behaviour - What makes a cat behave like a cat?

Cat Behaviour - What makes a cat behave like a cat?

Pet Psychology

Domestic cats evolved from the African Wild Cat, which is a small predator living in the savannahs of North Africa. It hunts small rodent prey, which is sparsely distributed. Consequently, for each Wild Cat to hunt enough food to survive they have to defend a large territory from other cats and are therefore solitary animals. As they are rarely in close proximity to each other, the African Wild Cat has not needed to develop a complex visual signalling system, like more naturally social species have. Rather than using facial expressions and body postures, these cats rely on olfactory communication signals to avoid conflict: sprayed urine marks fade over time, allowing other cats to establish whether the sprayer is likely to still be in the vicinity or not. Although the African Wild Cat is highly solitary, the domestic cat has evolved the ability to live in social groups under specific circumstances. This change was largely the result of human behaviour changing several thousand years ago: grain stores attracted rodents in large numbers, producing a rich food supply that could be exploited by a group of cats. In order for these cats to take advantage of this new food source, they had to be genetically more tolerant of other cats. Naturally occurring groups of domestic cats (feral or farm colonies) are largely made up of related females that help raise each others’ young. Consequently, there is a benefit to living in social groups: the females’ genes have a greater chance of being passed on to the next generation, either directly (own offspring) or indirectly (sister's offspring). However, cats still hunt independently and the group size never rises above that which the environment can support in terms of food and other resources, therefore, they do not have to compete for resources. The cats also spend a lot of time rubbing and grooming each other to produce a friendly, cooperative society. However, severe aggression is shown to cats from outside the social group that try to hunt on their territory, because they represent a threat to the group’s food and other resources. In the domestic situation, this instinct is still strong and although owners provide enough food, cats are still motivated to protect their territory from other cats that are not seen as part of their social group, whether this other cat is a member of the same household or is a neighbouring cat.Because the domestication of cats has been relatively recent, the ancestor’s inability to show complex visual signals is still present in our domestic cats, despite the ability to live in social groups. As cats do not have appeasement signals, like dogs, they cannot easily diffuse conflict. Therefore, in the domestic situation where they cannot always avoid other cats they often get into fights or become stressed by other cats. A good measure of whether or not cats within a multi-cat household perceive each other as part of the same social group is the behaviours that they perform towards each other: cats that rub against each other, groom each other and sleep in contact with each other do not see each other as a threat. Rubbing against each other for example creates a group identity scent so that the cats can easily recognise other members of the social group.The cat’s sensitive sense of smell is also very important for investigating novel objects, communication and orientation. Cats leave scent signals to themselves: they head rub in areas where they are relaxed and the facial scent deposits makes them feel relaxed in this area. They will do this most often in their core area, the part of their territory where they feel relaxed enough to perform vulnerable behaviours like eating, grooming, resting and sleeping. Cats also leave messages to themselves where they feel threatened - a sprayed urine mark acts as a warning signal to the cat itself, reminding it to be vigilant in that part of its territory. To be an effective signal, the urine mark must be renewed every time the smell begins to fade. Consequently, the cat will patrol its territory, sniffing all of its spray marks and renew any that are fading. This is known as the top-up phenomenon; cats will therefore often spray in the same place repeatedly. Cats also use scent to orientate themselves around their environment. Whereas humans use their vision to orientate themselves, cats follow scent maps created from scent glands in the feet and flanks. Moving furniture or redecorating may disrupt this scent map and cause disorientation. Cats largely behave in a similar way because of their natural history and sensory physiology. However, domestic cats show wide individual variation in their behavioural responses. When these differences are constant over time they are called ‘personalities’ and are fundamentally influenced by the individual’s genetics. However, the behaviour of an individual is also influenced by its interaction with the environment, through learning. Although cats learn throughout their lives, experiences that kittens have within their first two months of life are very important in influencing their behaviour into adulthood. During this period, often known as the ‘socialisation period’, the brain and sensory system is still developing and what it experiences during this time will influence how the brain develops. This period peaks between 2 and 7 weeks of age and during this time strong associations are made between the environment and the kitten’s resulting emotional state. Kittens will learn what aspects of their environment are to be perceived as ‘normal’ and ‘safe’. If kittens do not experience particular stimuli during this period they are more likely to be fearful of them later in life. Therefore, if a kitten has not been adequately socialised to humans it may be fearful of them throughout its life. Kittens that are socialised to four or more people during their socialisation periods generalise their experiences to all humans and interact confidently even with strangers. However, it is not just the number of people that is important; if a cat was not socialised to a child or a man, for instance, during the first seven weeks of life then they can be met with wariness throughout life. Cats continue to learn throughout their lives and any experience can influence the cat’s behaviour. To minimise emotional stress a cat may suffer, breeders should carefully choose which individuals they breed from; breeding from confident cats are more likely to produce confident kittens. Once born, the kittens’ behaviour can be further influenced by learning experiences. However, even with responsible breeding and adequate learning experiences, cats will inevitably suffer from stress at some point in life; but if owners are aware of what is likely to cause their cats stress then they can take measures to protect their cat from these stimuli.

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