When you think of a cat, an image of a sociable party animal doesn’t naturally spring to mind. Contrary to the outgoing nature of a dog, which loves to be part of a family group and follow the instructions of its owner, the leader of the pack, a cat may be perceived as an independent and uncooperative creature. Dated studies on animal behaviour also depict the feline as a solitary predator that just about tolerates the presence of other cats in its territory. However, thanks to more recent research, these and more stereotypical beliefs are being dispelled; Maria Grazia Calore, veterinary surgeon and expert in behaviour, explains.
The cat: from solitary feline to relational pet
As with dogs in the long process of domestication, cats have also ‘adapted’ their behaviour to live with man. The latest studies on feline behaviour, which studied ‘house cats’ and cat colonies in the city, have necessitated an important change in our understanding of the feline: the cat is not a social animal but it is relational. This is because a cat establishes emotional relationships with both its own kind and with other species (including humans).
In addition, cats don’t suffer from loneliness, so if the home setting is filled with stimuli, just like a natural environment, the cat will feel perfectly at home. For these reasons, although cats don’t need man to survive (with the exception of certain breeds like Persians or Sphynx, which cannot survive without man) living with a human being is an entirely practical arrangement as long as the conditions are favourable for the animal.
How does cat choose its ‘owner’?
A cat can survive in territories alongside other cats only if there are sufficient resources, such as food, areas it can be alone and toilet areas. However, over the centuries, the lure of food has attracted cats to man, while man, in turn, has used the animal to ward off mice and snakes. Apart from this mutual collaboration, a cat will also approach a person to create a friendship based on an equal exchange.
Whether a cat chooses a human or cat as its ‘companion’ is determined by the same factors: behaviours, postures and odours. For example, a high tone of voice, screams or rapid movements directed at a cat could be interpreted as a threat; on the contrary, a calm tone of voice, relaxed movements and half-closed eyes will have the opposite effect, earning the trust and friendship of the animal.
Cats also sense the moods of people through sight and smell: if we make them nervous they will try to escape or, if forced into an uncomfortable situation, they may exhibit aggression by hissing at us. If we are sad, however, just like a good friend, they will likely approach us to offer a cuddle or try to distract us from our mood with funny tricks. In a family group, because everyone behaves differently, a cat will treat each family member according to their own behaviour, it will not hide it preferences. Furthermore, when another animal is welcomed in to the home, if the cat is unsettled by the new addition or its nose has been put out of joint by not being the centre of attention any more, it may ‘choose’ to move out and find another family to live with.
Like friendships between humans, friendships between cats and man are based on assumptions: if these conditions are not met, the bond can weaken and break. To avoid this situation, we should begin by abandoning the anthropocentric vision in the human-pet relationship: our cat is not our subordinate, but a friend and equal!