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 . 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.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Tabby Time

Tennessee has transformed its palette from gray to green with breathtaking suddenness. Warm spring rain dances against my window, a perfect pairing with the drip-drop of piano keys that pour from my radio. I settle on the chaise, my restless self subdued, ready for the pleasures of cats and Coltrane.

Little Bit lands next to me, tipping her nose to mine in a friendly kiss. She has not forgotten our adventure together. As though her proximity to me prompts a silent alarm throughout the house, Henry and Helen come running. Resource Guarding. My tabbies are possessive. They bound onto the chaise and their presence ushers Little Bit from my arms. No hostilities are exchanged, the unlikely pair simply replace her.

Henry gazes at me, his big green eyes an irresistible invitation to affection. This is why I adopted him. He is the quintessential lap cat. He loves lap. He is the cat that will rouse from a deep sleep and respond any time I call, always ready for love. How can I refuse him anything—a cat like that? And yet, did I think this wouldn’t have consequences?

At the shelter, I never would have guessed that Henry would ascend to such kingly stature in my home. He is ever good-natured, but always the first to eat. Ben grooms him regularly, which Henry clearly enjoys as he is a glutton for all affection, but he never reciprocates. Little Bit and Gussie will also lavish his face and neck with fastidious attention as he blinks and purrs, though not as often as Ben.

Helen never grooms Henry—or any of the other cats (though she will occasionally give my hand a good loofah treatment with her tongue.) She and Henry seem to have an understanding of sorts, as though the two tabbies have agreed to share me, though his calm enchantment makes for a strange duet with Helen’s nervous jittering. Most nights, it is these two that sleep with me, while Gussie curls up in the crook of my husband’s knee, Little Bit beds down in the cat tree and Ben wraps himself around my daughter’s head.

Feline hierarchies are subtle and shifting, but it seems that Henry has established himself as a benevolent monarch. In Roger Tabour’s research with feral cats, he observed the colony cats treating a matriarch with deference. This seems to be the attitude of my kitty clan to Henry. He doesn’t rule with any sort of overt violence, though Ben and Henry do enjoy an occasional bout of kittenish wrestling (no one gets hurt, no hissing, howling or any of the signs of aggression, it is the same wrestling that Ben does with Gussie—and just like with Gussie, they will often relax after their games and fall asleep together, usually with Ben using Henry’s rump like a pillow.) It seems as though Henry has charmed them in much the same way that he charmed me, by being mild-mannered, affable and persistent in his pursuit of pleasure.

Does neutering a male provide him the opportunity to assume the role of ‘matriarch’ in a feline group? Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and Roger Caras both relate stories of neutered males assuming the role of doting aunt, letting kittens nurse on them (to little avail of course), grooming the kittens, guarding them and fully participating in their rearing—much like the females of a clowder. Perhaps the reduced sexuality and aggression of a neutered male could also allow him to assume the role of matriarch (assuming that matriarchy is the common social culture of cat groups.) The key being that in the feline matriarchies that have been studied, the grandmother is deferred to without hint of violence or other threat from her. This will be interesting to look for in other social groupings of cats.

And where does Helen fit into this? Helen is the natural matriarch—judging by age alone. She is ten years old now. And female. But she is also the social pariah. The other cats dislike her, Henry is the cat most willing to tolerate her. For Helen, Henry is the only cat that doesn’t panic her. While reading Temple Grandin’s “Animals in Translation” (Temple is autistic and a well-respected scientist and behaviorist, in the book she explains the similiarities in world view between autistics and animals), I began to wonder if Helen isn’t some sort of feline autistic, her most striking symptoms including a dislike for being stroked and an inability to interpret feline social cues.

I discussed this with a behaviorist at the Clicker Expo and she suggested that this could have been a by-product of vaccinations, as many people believe that autism is caused by vaccinations. I’m not sure about the causes, but in Temple’s book, she described hating being touched, but inventing a machine she calls her ‘squeeze box’ which is essentially a box with inflatable padding that squeezes her when she entires it—applying pressure to her whole body in a way that is very soothing for her. I thought I would try this with Helen, rather than trying to pet her, or move my hands over her fur and skin, I would simply apply steady pressure. She LOVES it. She responds by purring and pressing back into my arm and hand. Then we stay like that motionless. Last night, while laying on my back, I sandwiched her between my hip and my arm, using that same steady, solid (but not restraining) pressure. She stayed there for most of the night. This is unprecedented with Helen who usually snaps when touched too much.

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