Alien cat is alien

One of the reasons I like cats is because I find it enjoyable to try to model their thought processes by observing their behavior. They’re like furry aliens, just enough like us that a limited degree of communication (mostly emotional) is possible.

Just now I’m contemplating a recent change in the behavior of our new cat, Zola. Recent as in the last couple of days. Some kind of switch has flipped.

When last I reported on Zola, about six weeks ago, he was – very gradually – losing his initial reserve around us; behavior becoming more like Sugar’s was. Not all that surprising in retrospect – those Maine Coon genes are telling.

In the last couple of days Zola has become markedly more affectionate and attention-seeking. He’s even taken to sleeping part of the night on the waterbed coverlet, which was something Sugar did that we liked (before a few days ago, he’d occasionally jump up but then skedaddle after less than a minute). We find it very restful to have a cat curled up nearby when we’re dozing off or wake up in the middle of the night.

I think I understand the long-term, gradual increase in affectionate behavior; Zola has been testing us and learning that we’re safe. I wish I understood the sudden jump. It’s as though we’ve moved to a different category in his representation of the world. It doesn’t feel like he’s testing us anymore; now he just cheerfully assumes that we love him and loves us right back. He’s happier and more relaxed – he’s almost stopped disappearing during the day (but is still more nocturnal than Sugar was).

The reason I’m writing about this is to invite speculation – or, better yet, reports from ethological studies – on what social classifications cats have other than “stranger”, “packmate”, and “kin”. Also, whether there’s any evidence for domestic cats putting humans in a close-kin category, or something else distinguishable from and more trusted than “packmate”.

Now, if we can just teach him not to sprawl where he might get stepped on. Without actually stepping on him *wince*…

21 thoughts on “Alien cat is alien

  1. Have his reactions to visitors changed any? (Or has there been an opportunity/)

  2. You left him alone twice for extended periods (sword camp, WBC), and now he knows that you’ll return again after an absence.

  3. I’ve found male cats in general to be much more likely to hide when there are visitors over, @Jay Maynard. Granted my value for N is like 5, but I’ve been told that my results are not unusual.

  4. If I’m recalling correctly, there are a few distinguishable roles in extended-duration intra-cat associations observed “in the wild”:

    1) Independent cats in roughly the same geographic area, with their relationship running from hostility to wary socialization (with bluff/placation/dominance/submission cues).

    2) Kitten littermates with mutual play, including play versions of bluff/placation/dominance/submission.

    3) Mother cat caring for kittens.

    4) Kitten being cared for by mother cat.

    5) Emergent only in places with an abundant food supply, adult female cats of close relation (mother-daughter or sisters) living in friendly mutual association, treating any kittens of any of the adults as one big litter-in-common.

    6) In cases where a #5 “colony” exists, an adult tomcat in friendly but more peripheral association.

    (We can add, for interspecies relations, a #7 Predator, and #8 Potential Prey; given the size of a human, a housecat might act under the assumption that he’s been cast in role #8, but is unlikely to ever consider acting in role #7)

    Finally, neutered-before-puberty male cats reliably behave far more like not-in-estrus females than they act like un-neutered toms.

    So, based on your description and my recall, I suspect that Zola was originally behaving in role #1 (edging over to #2, perhaps), you kept acting too nicely to fit as being anything other than a #3 (or perhaps #5), and thus Zola finally flipped to filling role #4 (or #5).

  5. > “there’s any evidence for domestic cats putting humans in a close-kin category”

    My father is a cat person. Some behavior you’ve talked about in the blog reminds me of things he’s said — the proper protocol to approach a cat, and how some people are seemingly more cat attuned (the cats are less skittish around them) than others, etc.

    This question of yours reminds me of something he said: The earlier you adopt a cat, the closer to kin he treats you. In particular, if you happen to _adopt_ the cat, as in taking it in before it grows past milking age: the cat treats the milk-feeder as family. Straight up to the point of a cat going to fetch her human — and insist the human follow — to show it where the cubs are going to be born or were born. I can get my father to comment here, if this line of thought is interesting to other readers.

  6. I’m not a “cat person” but one thing I do know is that they aren’t “pack animals”. They are solitary hunters in the main. Which is why “herding cats” is said to be an impossible task. [Smile]

  7. >Have his reactions to visitors changed any? (Or has there been an opportunity/)

    No new visitors in the last couple of days.

  8. >I’ve found male cats in general to be much more likely to hide when there are visitors over

    Zola didn’t hide from visitors even before the switch flipped. Coons generally don’t.

  9. >If I’m recalling correctly, there are a few distinguishable roles in extended-duration intra-cat associations observed “in the wild”

    Ahh, now that is the sort of answer I was looking for. Your guess about the transition is reasonable. Another possibility is that he flipped from #6 to #4 or #5.

  10. >The earlier you adopt a cat, the closer to kin he treats you.

    Reasonable. We adopted Zola late; he’s about 2. So, not treating us as kin right off.

    >Straight up to the point of a cat going to fetch her human — and insist the human follow — to show it where the cubs are going to be born or were born.

    OK, so that seems to confirm that there’s a “kin-like” status that can be acquired. Possibly Steven Ehrbar’s #5.

  11. >I’m not a “cat person” but one thing I do know is that they aren’t “pack animals”. They are solitary hunters in the main. Which is why “herding cats” is said to be an impossible task. [Smile]

    They’re not pack hunters, but they do have pack social behavior. Humans tend to miss this because feline social signals are, from a human POV, difficult to notice (unlike those of dogs).

  12. I think a cat’s caterogization of humans is a bit more elaborate than kin, packmate, stranger. With the cat I grew up with, I got the impression that context made a difference. When we had guests for example, he’d react very cautiously when encountering them on the parking lot, but became affectionate to them once they were inside our house. He was probably thinking that people whom we trusted enough to invite into our home, would be friendly to him too.

    That behaviour was muted however when we had the guests sitting in the garden for a BBQ, as opposed to the living room; he’d stick around, but not be affectionate to them.

    He always stayed far away from any young children though, even when they were in the living room and well-behaved. Too many negative experiences I suppose (and chronic pain in his hip from when he was run over and had it broken; children seemed insensitive to his not wanting to be touched there)

    In summary, there seems to be a transitive element to how a cat extends trust. I don’t think it’s just people that matter though, location/context seems to be very important too. While this is pack behaviour (picking up cues from the rest of th pack), granting “esteemed-guest” status doesn’t usually happen among animals though?

  13. About 12 years ago my daughter “temporarily” left her two cats, a male and a female (litter mates), with me. While neither was particularly vocal, the male was the physically larger and more dominate personality, the female was very shy and reticent. About 3 years ago now, the male developed cancer and died. Since then, the female has become much more vocal than either ever was and has developed personality characteristics much like those the male formerly displayed.

    Not sure this is entirely what you were wanting, but I have long been aware that cats seem to prefer a hierarchical relationship with humans when they have such a relationship between themselves. My little universe of two (now one) examples of their willingness to develop and then adapt their relationships with humans seems to support this observation.

  14. For background, I have 5 cats, 4 of which I acquired as kittens all at once and 1 which is substantially older. I have noticed a number of distinct and separate roles..

    There is:
    1) Untrusted (strange humans, run and hide)
    2) Skeptical but testing (unfamiliar humans, hide at first, then slowly approach for pets; run and hide if provoked)
    3) Trusted friend (casual petting, sitting next to, approaching without fear, unexpected noises do not cause panic)
    4) Family (sleep on or next to)

    All 5 cats treat me as kin. The older cat treats me as kin, but the other cats fall into different categories depending on the individuals. The younger cats treat the older cat individually as well.

    It’s really interesting. But the big mark of trust over and above friendship appears to involve being slept on.

  15. >4) Family (sleep on or next to)

    Your taxonomy makes sense.

    In it, Zola went from about 2.4 on meeting us, gradually moved to above 3 and has just jumped to 4.

    That’s good. Sugar jumped right to 4 the night we rescued her, but she was exceptional.

  16. I suppose I should add that the interactions between older cat and younger cats do not fit into those categories perfectly. Mostly they hover between 2 and 3, with older cat getting along well with one of the younger cats and OK with another.

    Younger female cat Athos sleeps on older cat. Never the other way around. Older cat will groom younger cats if he approves them (one, sometimes two). I haven’t ever noticed for sure the other way around. Maybe it’s mutual occasionally.

    Older male cat and younger male cat range from “cold tolerance” to actively growling and hissing, but almost never come to blows real blows It’s some sort of “this is MY spot” dominance game. Pretty solid 2, with occasional moments of “I’m too tired to hiss at you, go away.”

    Younger female cat D’artagnan is friendly with older male cat (3). Older male cat treats D’artagnan as 2.5. Skeptical, but not hostile.

    Younger female cat Aramis is a nagging, desperate-for-attention type. She’s on level 2 with older male cat, level 3 with everyone else until they get annoyed by the demands for attention. What’s amusing is that the older male cat will sometimes mistake her for Athos (they are almost indistinguishable) and let Aramis take a nap on him. It ends badly when the true identity is revealed.

    Another amusing detail. As the human, I am the bridge between worlds. Older cat gets one side of the bed. The other cats get the other side. Everyone can share the bed so long as the cats that don’t trust each other can’t SEE each other. Otherwise there are issues…

  17. Eric:
    This is a one shot deal, if it is considered unsuitable for a post, let me know.
    Very unlikely I will repeat soon in any case.

    Guys/Gals:

    This group seems like one that might have the
    right kind of people reading it.

    A combination of —

    We just got authorization to move a
    manufacturing data system from CA clipper (16
    bit dos compiler) to python. About a year and
    a half or so to make the move.

    I am 67 and planning to retire one of these
    years soon. My current plan is to get this
    move done, an understudy or two properly up to
    speed, then retire more or less xmas 2016.

    There is a position open in Yakima, Wa at a
    window manufacturing plant. We are a part of
    Atrium Windows and Doors. The new programming
    platform will be Python3x. The job is
    potentially long term. Programming in python,
    sql and several printer languages. Specific
    programming experience is not nearly as
    important to me as finding the correct person
    for the job. There are possibly two positions available.
    Move to Yakima is not an *absolute* requirement for both
    but would be a good thing for one.

    If you are interested in more detail,
    jim.hurlburt@atrium.com

  18. > Now, if we can just teach him not to sprawl where he might get stepped on. Without actually stepping on him *wince*…

    Eric, you noted in a previous post that cats do make a distinction between breaking a rule and getting caught. If you set up rules for his protection (or not ;)) rather than for your own purposes, and contrive ways to enforce them that is consistent with that notion, then “getting caught” becomes moot. Where I read about this recommended a water pistol: Say “no” a couple of seconds before shooting the cat with a water pistol, and it’ll get the idea that you’re protecting it from the water pistol. I don’t think that works because the cat’s going to figure it out. Plan B: booby traps. This is easier for things like beds and furniture, but not so much for hallways. I’m not sure how to make a corridor or doorway uncomfortable for cats to lie down in without also making it uncomfortable for humans to walk through (especially barefoot). Perhaps you can think of something (the main reason I can’t is because I can’t afford a cat.)

  19. @TriggerFinger:
    the big mark of trust over and above friendship appears to involve being slept on

    That’s certainly been my experience with cats. My siamese used to sleep on my pillow–to the point where I’d wake up pushed over to the side while he happily occupied the lion’s share of it.

  20. But the big mark of trust over and above friendship appears to involve being slept on.

    Not surprising, given the danger one faces by sleeping, and this understanding of trust certainly extends as far as ferrets and other humans (a former girlfriend’s test of when she trusted a man was whether she could fall asleep propped up against him).

  21. > Now, if we can just teach him not to sprawl where he might get stepped on. Without actually stepping on him *wince*…

    One thing that has worked for me is to place sheets of aluminum foil in areas you want the cat to avoid. They don’t like the crinkly sound it makes when they walk on it, and it’s uncomfortable to lie on, so they learn to not go there. After a week or two, you can remove the foil and the cat will still avoid the area. In high traffic areas like hallways, you can place the sheets far enough apart that the cat (and humans) can walk through without stepping on it, while still covering enough area to discourage them from sprawling there.

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