Feline behavioral convergence

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.

15 thoughts on “Feline behavioral convergence

  1. Eric, have you heard of the Russian fox-domestication experiments? Responsiveness to kindness is indeed a strongly heritable and selectable-for trait in foxes; the experiments now fund themselves through the sale of cuddly, adorable pet foxes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same were true of cats. “Sweet disposition” is a favored trait of many breeds, not least of all Zola’s Maine Coon line, so there is already a tradition of breeders actively selecting for human-friendly affectionate animals.

    And nurturance circuitry is not the likely cause of affectionate tendencies in Sugar or Zola; neoteny is. Psychologically, Sugar was something of a kitten all her long life and considered you and Cathy her effective parents; the same is likely true of Zola. So they were actually seeking *you* for nurturance. Retention of kitten-like behaviors into adulthood is probably the major genetic trait actually being selected for. The biggest tell: Cats meow to humans. They generally do not meow to other cats — except their mother in infancy.

  2. A recent cat experience fascinated me and I wonder what Eric and the other cat people here think. For nearly two years a neighborhood male cat has been visiting my girlfriend 5-6 days a week, and is quite attached to her and her house. Sometimes he climbs onto the 60-degree-pitched roof to get to a second-story window to get her attention so he can be let in and stay overnight. This seems rather risky and out of character, because he is often very skittish, especially about sudden noises.

    Recently a younger female cat has also been visiting. He is not happy with this, sometimes seeming to sulk, other times playing with her a bit roughly. One day she was in playing with a toy, and I saw him creeping up behind her. When he got 2-3 feet away, he leaped in the air and landed about 8 inches behind her, all four paws hitting the floor at once with an uncat-like THUMP. She turned to see what the noise was, but wasn’t startled. A few minutes later, he did the same thing, and got the same reaction.

    It was clear that he was trying to make a sudden noise behind her to scare her away, because he is startled by sudden noises. I have never seen a cat or a dog do something that calculating.

  3. It was clear that he was trying to make a sudden noise behind her to scare her away, because he is startled by sudden noises. I have never seen a cat or a dog do something that calculating.

    Cats are surprisingly clever. Some can even make and use tools.

    My late feline pal Smokey used to do something my parents called “Matrix Cat”. He knew he was not supposed to be in certain areas of the house, so what he would do is tiptoe into them — as long as a human wasn’t looking (they were watching TV or similar). As soon as the humans in the forbidden room turned to look, he would freeze in place. If the human were to look away he would continue sneaking, as though he thought as long as he held still he would be invisible.

    My hypothesis is that a cat’s visual cortex — and that of anything likely to prey upon or be preyed upon by a cat in the wild — is more optimized for detecting movement than for recognizing and identifying individual objects, so — assuming a human sees the way a cat sees — he froze in place, turning “invisible”. It’s still startling to see a cat exhibit such a developed “theory of mind”. He distinguished between doing something forbidden and being caught by a human doing something forbidden, only associating the latter with punishment; and made guesses as to whether he could be noticed by a human and thus caught in the act. This generalized to other activities as well; if there were no humans around he might scale the blinds to get a better look at a bird, then when I entered the room he would stare at me with wide alarmed eyes for a second, and then turn into a fuzzy gray ballistic missile headed for the safety of the basement.

  4. >Eric, have you heard of the Russian fox-domestication experiments? Responsiveness to kindness is indeed a strongly heritable and selectable-for trait in foxes [...] I wouldn’t be surprised if the same were true of cats.

    I have, and your point is valid.

    >So they were actually seeking *you* for nurturance.

    Certainly neoteny is part of the story here, but it can’t be all. Kittens don’t get maternal when their parent cats are ill, which would be the analogy for Sugar’s sick-room behavior under your theory.

    It seems clear to me that (female) cat behavior towards humans recruits circuitry for both ends of the nurturance bond. And the Nose of Peace is peer-bonding, so there are actually a minimum of three distinct mechanisms in play.

  5. >a cat’s visual cortex [..] is more optimized for detecting movement than for recognizing and identifying individual objects

    This fact is well known to ethologists who study cats.

    BTW, though the belief that that cats don’t see color has passed into popular folklore, more careful investigation discloses that they can – just not very well, and it’s difficult to interest them in color distinctions in a laboratory setting. It seems likely they use it for prey identification in the wild.

  6. >Obligatory Leslie Fish Cat Breeding Stories: http://lesliefish.com/cats.htm

    Funny. Mrrrp was one bright cat.

    If we had followed her convention of naming a cat after its greeting sound, Sugar would have been “Blrrt” and Zola would be…something I can’t spell properly.

  7. As soon as the humans in the forbidden room turned to look, he would freeze in place. If the human were to look away he would continue sneaking, as though he thought as long as he held still he would be invisible.

    Widespread even outside of mammals; many reptiles have similar instincts. My ferret takes this to a hilarious extreme: She’ll freeze even when out in the middle of an unobstructed, open floor that differs from her in both color and brightness and be convinced that I can’t see her even when we’re staring at each other.

  8. 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.

    Actually, I rather think it suggests that personality traits in humans is much more heritable than anyone is really comfortable admitting.

  9. Thanks for this post. It taught me a lot about how nephesh works (Eric, you don’t want to look that word up, trust me.)

  10. > As soon as the humans in the forbidden room turned to look, he would freeze in place. If the human were to look away he would continue sneaking, as though he thought as long as he held still he would be invisible

    They aren’t that dumb, are they? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzzjgBAaWZw

  11. Boris learned to open a folding clasp knife.

    Kittens actually will act maternal to an ill mother; I’ve had kittens bring mortally wounded crickets for Mom to eat when Mom isn’t feeling well enough to hunt. I’ve also seen kittens love-avalanche Mom when Mom wasn’t moving “enough” – it’s the same “leaaaan in and make warm” behavior they do to humans on the bed or chair.

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