Some cat needs, go further than basic requirements and could be said to be the ‘icing on the cake’. Like the children choosing chocolate over broccoli, some cats have the option to have more than is simply needed for survival, or even more than is best for them. When it comes to food, we have seen that our cats are pretty good regulators of what they eat in terms of calories (although this has been changing in the past ten years or so). However, as facilitators of these ‘extras’, we are in a position to give our cats what they want, or to refuse them. Is there any good reason not to give them what they want?
We often compare dogs and cats because they are the primary pets mankind has chosen to live with and they live alongside us in our homes rather than in cages or outside in pens. We fit in with their way of life and they fit in with ours. With dogs, we need to walk them and control their outdoor activities so they do not become social nuisances. With cats, it is more flexible and there are few behaviours that cause problems to other people.
Our experience with dogs has taught us that it is not always wise to let our canine companions choose what they want or to dictate the interactions we have with them. Some dogs, given the chance, will begin to take the upper hand with the human family if they are allowed to or are given the wrong signals. They can become aggressive if we then try to take back control. This happens because the dog is a pack animal – its behavioural repertoire allows it to fit into a group that works together for hunting and social interaction, such as breeding. Within this group, there is a hierarchy and a dog’s behaviour will depend on how it fits into this hierarchy or organization of individuals. This structure is necessary to ensure that the members of the group are not constantly at each other’s throats (literally!) and trying to rearrange who is in charge or who does what within the group. Our human family replaces other canines as the ‘pack’ and how the people act gives the dog clues as to where it fits within this pack and thus what it is allowed to do or to challenge. A ‘nice’ family trying to treat a dog as an equal may have real problems if they happen to have a dog that takes advantage of their lack of command or inability to give direction in doggy terms. Such dogs, which may have been top-of-the-pack characters in the wild or opportunistic dogs that make the best of the situation to increase their status, then become rather uncompromising when the family asks them to do something they do not wish to do or when they do something the family does not wish them to do. This may be as simple as asking the dog to get off the settee or getting it to move because it is lying in the way – the dog may react with aggression because it feels that its owners do not have the ‘right’ to ask, due to the fact that they have inadvertently given it a higher status than them in the home.
This lack of understanding, or breakdown in communication, between people and dogs is typical of why some behaviour problems, such as aggression, can occur. Thus, what dogs want is not always good for the dog or the humans caring for it.
However, with cats we do not have this problem. They are not obligate social animals – they seem to have the ability to be sociable if they want to and if environmental factors are right. This sociability extends to people but again there are not built-in rules – because we have no overlap in social rules, it is hard to get the wrong message. Thus, there are very few behavioural problems caused by communication problems between people and cats – most occur because of environmental factors. And, because of this, there are no reasons for not doing as our cats want! They will not decide to take the upper hand or take over the household. Thankfully, cat owners can ‘spoil’ their cats as much as they like without a problem. Of course, providing too much food or giving in to feline demands for just one type of food can have consequences for the cat’s health, and for this reason we must exert some control.
However, cats, being very clever animals, can sometimes manipulate a situation to be more rewarding for them. Being independent and not group-orientated creatures, the benefits will be entirely for them! These consequences are often a little tiring for the humans involved or happen at ‘in-humane’ hours. For example, a cat may want to go outside at 5 a.m. because it feels active and ready to start the day – the birds are singing and it sounds as if there is lots to investigate outdoors. The owner, at first amused by the gentle tap of a paw on the face and a nuzzle and purr, gets up in case the cat is hungry. Reacting to a sign to let the cat out, the person goes back to bed and thinks nothing more of it. Training Day One has been a great success – the cat has early attention, food and can go out in the sun – its owner is a very good pupil. The cat will now repeat the performance daily and, if its owner seems a little unwilling to leap out of bed at the first prod, will continue with renewed vigour until this happens. Cats can be very persistent and you only have to give in once in a while to provide enough reward for the cat to keep trying! Humans are bright enough to make great pets!
However annoying these training sessions, there are few if any consequences other than tiredness or annoyance. In general, giving in to our cats’ wants gives us a feel-good factor and our cats reward us with attention and affection.
Interestingly, the comparison with children does have parallels in the cat world in one particular instance. Most people would agree that children who are given everything they want and who do not have parameters they can understand are not usually the nicest of human beings. They have to learn how to fit in with others and with the rules of our society. Our human childhood is long and children do have quite a few years to learn the rules.
Cats teach their kittens the rules too – these are not as complex as those for dogs, for example, because cats do not have to learn how to fit into a social group. Learning to hunt is much more important. How cats get on with other cats or different species is often decided within the first eight weeks of life, when the cat can form attachments to beings other than its mother. During its first few weeks, the kitten must learn to do as its mother tells it but then to distance itself from her as she prepares to have another litter.
Sometimes humans take over the role of feline mother when kittens are abandoned or something happens to their natural mother. This involves hand feeding every couple of hours until the kitten is large enough to be weaned. One would imagine that these kittens would be very attached to their human carers and would have a very loving relationship with them. Interestingly, many such kittens actually turn into rather nasty cats and react with aggression should their human ‘mothers’ try to stop what they want to do – rather like a spoiled child. We believe that this happens because humans can wean the kittens nutritionally but do not have the expertise to wean them behaviourally. Kittens, like children, have to learn to deal with frustration and be able to cope in an acceptable manner when they do not get what they want – part of good parenting is to ensure this happens. Humans rearing kittens probably feed them at every visit and give them what they want, enjoying the relationship and the interaction with such beautiful little creatures. However, they fail to teach them the lessons a mother cat would do naturally, and so perhaps giving them everything they want at this stage can have consequences for the relationship. Luckily for us, most cats are raised by feline mothers and have learned their lessons before entering our homes.