What Makes Us Close To Our Cats?
This, of course, is not a simple question and any answer we attempt is bound to be multifaceted. The relationship will depend on the person’s desire to interact with the cat; likewise on the part of the cat, as well as on its ability to interact. Before we can look at the relationship as a whole, we need to look at the factors that affect how cats interact with people. These include genetics, early exposure, experience and the way in which people interact with the cats themselves.
Like people, the way cats react to the world around them depends on a combination of genetics and experience. Also like people, there are cats that seem to be born bold and confident and others that are always nervous about tackling anything. Researchers who have attempted to characterise cat personalities have found that they can place them in broad categories: cats that are friendly and interact with people; cats that are friendly but rather reserved; and cats that do not want any contact at all (these were termed ‘unfriendly’). In a separate study, research revealed that kittens from fathers that were in the friendly category were also friendly. Other researchers found that kittens from friendly fathers were also more likely to go up to novel objects and investigate them – they were more confident and bolder in general, so perhaps this also gave them a confidence with their interactions with people and their willingness to interact was interpreted as friendliness. Researchers who study people have found they can establish whether a baby is bold in nature or not by about the age of nine months, through studying the ways they react in certain circumstances. A nine-month-old baby would be the equivalent of a kitten of about three to four weeks in age – already trying solids and trying to explore around the nest – so the comparison actually fits very well.
We often tend to split our pet cats into pedigree cats and moggies. Pedigrees could be defined as cats that come from a predefined group; the genes available for them to use come from animals that look similar in many of their physical characteristics – be it coat colour or length or shape of body, size of ears or colour of eyes. Individuals are selected to comply with a set of characteristics that are defined for that breed. However, if we are selecting cats on looks, are we also selecting for certain behavioural characteristics that are within that group already? When we look at some of the breeds, it is obvious that they do have trends of behaviour within them. For example, Siamese cats are often very interactive with their owners and demanding of attention and tend to be quite vocal in their interactions. Persians, on the other hand, are less likely to be as active and are much quieter. However, within all cats, be they pedigree or moggie, there is a wide range of characteristics and it is said that individual personalities of cats in general, breed or no breed (moggies), span the complete range – you might have a quiet Siamese or a very active Persian. These may be the exceptions within the breed, but individual behaviours still arise that do not comply with the norm. We can guess what is likely to happen in some breeds, but certainly not all – many behave in as wide a range of ways as is possible within the cat kingdom.
DOES COAT COLOUR HAVE AN EFFECT ON BEHAVIOUR?
There has been some research into coat colour and temperament and there are many anecdotal stories about certain types and colours, such as tabbies or tortoiseshells. Some researchers have reported that black cats may be more tolerant of high densities of numbers than cats with the agouti gene (this gene produces a wildtype coat that resembles that of a rabbit). Others suggest that cats with the red or tortoiseshell gene are quicker to react if they feel uneasy. Certainly, many people report that tortoiseshell females (in fact, tortoiseshells are almost always female) are demonstrably intolerant of handling when they do not want to be touched, and that they react strongly to other cats being introduced into the household. That said, no definitive studies have been done in this area and we cannot make firm conclusions on this point. There are several speculative reasons for linking coat colour and behaviour – if some of the genes that control coat colour are placed close to genes which control behaviours or senses, then certain behaviour traits or input of sensory information may accompany certain colours. Moreover, the chemicals available for and used in coat pigmentation may also be associated with brain function and the availability for one may have some effect on the other. Lastly, pigment may directly affect the senses – white cats may be deaf because of a defect in the gene that controls hearing which is associated with the gene for white coats. This is a topic that will no doubt run and run – are redheads more reactive than blonds? – and we may have all sorts of personal reasons for agreeing or disagreeing. And, while the science may not as yet be up to speed on this issue, it continues to be a fascinating subject for speculation and conviction, based on personal experience!
TIMING OF EXPOSURE TO PEOPLE
There is a period of a young kitten’s life when it is very receptive to forming attachments to other animals. Known as the ‘sensitive period’, it lasts from the age of about three to eight weeks. During this time, attachments are formed easily and quickly. If kittens experience people and handling during this period, they are likely to be able to form relationships with them in later life and to be friendly pets. If they do not, then it can be difficult for them to become confident pet cats. This is the reason why feral cats seldom make good pets: they can form attachments but if they have missed this sensitive period it takes a great deal longer and much more effort to acclimatise them to domestic living – in many cases, this will not happen other than from a distance. This highlights the thin line between the pet and the wild or feral cat – one is ‘domesticated’ and the other is not. The question is not simply one of genetics, therefore; early experience is also vital. It is thought that the stimuli that kittens receive during this period act to promote fast growth and development of nerve connections in the areas of the brain that control social behaviour and the forming of attachments. This social behaviour can be directed at people if they are in the kitten’s sphere of exposure at this time. Researchers have found that the more often kittens are handled regularly during the first 45 days of life (up to a plateau of about one hour a day), the friendlier they will be to humans; indeed, it will affect their attitude to people quite dramatically. They will be much more confident in the way they approach new objects or situations than kittens which have not had this handling.
As discussed above, fathers can contribute genes for confidence that may result in friendly kittens. Of course, mothers too contribute genetically to their offspring. However, they also have an influence because of their attitude and behaviour to people. Father cats have no input into kitten upbringing, so they can have no influence in this way. Kittens learn a great deal by observation and a friendly mother that is happy to have her kittens handled and will let them interact with humans will encourage the kittens themselves to behave in a friendly manner towards humans. By the same token, a nervous mother reacting with fear to humans will convey danger to her kittens.
EXPERIENCES OF PEOPLE
Even though the sensitive period is a time when experience of people will bring about a dramatic difference in a cat’s attitude to people, subsequent experiences will also have a great effect. Cats learn quickly and if they have been frightened or hurt they will take avoiding action to ensure their safety is not threatened in a similar way. Thus, they will take avoiding action at the first sign of danger.
This may simply be the appearance of a person, or even certain ages or sexes of people. Many cats have a fear of men, probably because they tend to talk and act rather more loudly than women – they are often less predictable in their behaviour, from a cat’s point of view, and can appear to be more threatening.