During the past week, I have been inundated with Cat behavior consults. What is most interesting to me is the number of multiple cat households that are experiencing problems with aggression. Aggression cases fascinate me. They are usually a complex puzzle and I believe that behaviorists are severely limited in our ability to treat this issues beyond suggesting environmental changes, distraction tactics, positive reinforcement of good behavior. All of these can be effective, especially in a smaller household. But in a larger cat community, the dynamics can be much more complex.
Two sociologists, Steve and Janet Alger conducted a five year study of the Whiskers Cat Shelter in Albany, New York (I am planning to visit the shelter in July 2007.) They concluded that feline social interactions are not formed as strict hierarchies (the term often used is ‘subtle hierarchy’),but rather that cats adopt social roles. For instance, some cats act as socializers. They welcome new cats into the shelter community, comforting them and sleeping with them (Lara Germony described a similar cat during my visit to Basha’s Fund, describing one of her cats as the ambassador, because he shows foster cats the locations of the litter box and food, then sleeps with them their first night.) Other cats act as the police, intervening and preventing conflict when tensions arise between shelter residents. Some cats seemed to be a friend to all, curling up with the cats that had trouble bonding with a specific friend. While other cats sought out the company of just one or two other cats for companionship.
They found that the ‘un-adoptable’ feral cats helped to create and preserve the culture of this cage-free shelter. Feral cats tend to have better feline to feline social skills then cats coming from single cat homes. Many of the single cats needed to be guided in adjusting to the culture of the shelter. Some did better than others.
What interests me is understanding the recurring social roles that are common from one cat community to another—and examining the significance of those roles to the cats.
Clearly, part of the adjustment problem when cats are newly introduced is an issue of adjusting social roles—less a hierarchical conflict and more one of insecurity, reluctance and often resentment about not wanting to change or share roles. I suspect that it may be important to differentiate roles from ‘status’.
The ASPCA has developed a program called Feline-ality to assist in successful adoptions from shelters. The program uses criterion to asses the personality type of the cat in an effort to match the right cat to the right person. Perhaps it would be helpful to develop a similar system of assessment to categorize cat personalities in relationship to other cats—to help determine how the cats will interact together, and to assist in the transition of roles in households where the cats must find a way to co-habitate peacefully.
(Over the next several months, I will be observing a wide variety of cat communities looking for indications of consistent social roles and how each cat culture is organized around those roles. I realize it probably sounds a lot like ‘cat nerd’ talk—but I am really excited about this—because I believe that—without over complicating things—we need more tools to rehabilitate cat communities that are dealing with aggression problems.)
Preview of Coming Attractions
Over the next several months, I will be traveling across the country in search of cat stories, visiting innovative cat rescues and shelters, interviewing eccentric cat lovers, leading vets and behaviorists and so much more. To view my travel schedule and learn more about my Cat Behaviorist business, please visit http://www.thecatbehaviorist.com/ . If I will be in your area and you feel you have some interesting cat stories to share, please don't hesistate to contact me via my website.