The new cat, Zola has been with us for about a month now. My wife and I observe an interesting convergence; as he feels increasingly secure around us, his behavior is coming to resemble Sugar’s more and more, to the point that it sometimes feels like having her back with us.
What makes this a surprising observation is that Sugar was not your behaviorally average cat. She was up against the right-hand end of the feline bell curve for sociability, gentleness, and good manners. Having Zola match that so exactly is a little startling even if we did improve our odds by keeping an eye out for a Maine Coon that liked us on sight. It still feels rather like having 00 come up twice in succession on a roulette wheel.
This is ethologically interesting; it suggests some things about how the personalities of cats – and even specific behavioral propensities – are generated. In the remainder of this post I will use detailed observations to explore this point.
First, some differences for perspective. Zola, as we expected from our first few minutes of contact with him, is a calmer creature than Sugar was – a bit more self-sufficient, a bit less easily startled. His kinesic repertoire is a bit different; he leg-strops routinely and often assumes the play-invitation posture of flopping over on his back (Sugar almost never did these things). She liked to express affection by climbing onto a human and licking hands or face, which Zola doesn’t. If Sugar were human she’d have been a wide-eyed ingenue; if Zola were human he’d be a mellow dude a la Jeff Bridges.
Still, the similarities greatly outweigh the differences, and have been increasing rather than decreasing. Both cheerful, sunny personalities; both extremely gentle, careful with their claws and teeth; both love(d) human attention and respond to it with a touching degree of trust. The trust is/was manifested, for example, by casually napping near humans and not startling when touched unexpectedly.
Zola is moving towards Sugar’s pattern of not wanting to ever be out of sight of a human for very long, and has recently developed the same tendency Sugar had to hang out at the one place in the hallway where he can keep an eye on both Cathy and myself at our work desks in different rooms. Also he’s started to greet us at the door when we come home from places. That almost hurt the first time it happened, it was so like Sugar.
We haven’t tried to directly train behaviors like keeping a eye on both of us and greeting us at the door, and wouldn’t know how to do it if we were trying. I’ve written previously about how you train a cat for companionability, but that’s a more general thing; that’s a matter of helping the cat feel secure and rewarding it for being affectionate, with the hope that behaviors you like will emerge naturally.
I can see how greeting us at the door could emerge naturally; on the other hand, I certainly don’t know how you’d go about training a cat to bond equally to both of the humans it lives with if it had the tendency to be a one-person pet that runs in some breeds. Kindness only goes so far; the cat has to have the personality to respond to it. Some cats very clearly don’t.
I think the natural theory to explain the observed facts is that personality in cats is very, very heritable – much more so than in humans. But I think we can be more specific than that; while any cat will become fearful if mistreated or stressed, the capacity to respond to kindness is what the example of Sugar and Zola suggests is genetically programmed.
I see a parallel with heritability of intelligence in humans, in which genes seem to control an upper limit of processing capacity which may never be reached if CNS growth is hindered by (say) poor early-childhood nutrition.
Comparing Zola and Sugar is also interesting because of the male/female difference. Cathy and I long assumed that Sugar’s affection behaviors were partly a recruitment of circuitry for nurturing kittens and partly related to mechanisms for bonding and social signaling between friendly peers. But while the nurturance-instinct explanation probably remains partly true for Sugar, tomcats are not nurturers.
Therefore, the fact that Zola duplicates so many of Sugar’s behaviors changes my estimate of relative weights. It makes peer bonding look more important, and nurturance look less so, as sources for the behaviors that cats use to relate to humans.
One datum we don’t have yet is how Zola will behave when one of her humans is ill or seriously distressed. Sugar got rather maternal at such times, sticking close and seemingly determined to be comforting. That’s how we read it, but if Zola exhibits similar comforting behaviors some re-interpretation will be in order.
Finally, Cathy has noted that whereas Sugar adopted us as her humans very quickly and completely back in 1994, in Zola it’s been a slower process with stages. That may have an environmental explanation; Sugar had found one of her humans dead that day, and was clearly in serious distress. It’s pretty natural in both feline and human terms that she went all any-port-in-a-storm on us.
Zola, on the other hand, had it reasonably good at the rescue center – probably not getting as much human contact as he wanted, but certainly not traumatized or frightened. He could afford to be friendly but a bit more reserved. It’s been kind of fun to watch that reserve melting, measured by the steadily decreasing percentage of time he chooses to spend out of sight.