Our new cat Zola, it appears, has a mysterious past. The computer that knows about the ID chip embedded under his skin thinks he’s a dog.
There’s more to the story. And it makes us think we may have misread Zola’s initial behavior. I’m torn between wishing he could tell us what he’d been through, and maybe being thankful that he can’t. Because if he could, I suspect I might experience an urge to go punch someone’s lights out that would be bad for my karma.
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.
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.
Some people with cats seem to regard them as a sort of mobile item of decor that occasionally deigns to be interacted with; they’re OK with aloofness. My wife and I, on the other hand, like to have cats who are genuinely companionable, follow us around when they’re not doing anything important like eating or sleeping, purr at the sight of us, and greet us at the door when we come home.
My wife and I had a cat like that for nearly twenty years. Sugar died in April, and we’ve been developing an understanding with a new cat for a bit over two weeks. We’re doing the same things to establish trust with Zola that we did with Sugar. They seem to be working; Zola gets a little more present and interactive and nicer to us every day.
Accordingly, here are our rules for training a cat to be companionable. You may find some of these obvious, but I suspect that the ‘obvious’ set is widely variable between people, so they’re all worth writing down.
A general point is that cats respond as well as people do to (a) being treated affectionately, and (b) having a clear sense of what people expect from them. Kindness and consistent signaling make for a friendly and well-mannered cat.
Zola, successor to our late and sorely missed cat Sugar, arrived here today. Here’s how it went…
Cathy and I signed papers to adopt a cat from a rescue network last night. It would be here already, but it’s being treated for a mild ear infection picked up at the pet store.
“It” is actually a he, a golden-eyed ginger-and-cream Maine Coon about two years old. The name is “Gorgonzola”, which we’ll probably shorten to “Zola”.
Why this cat? Because we’re of the school of thought that believes you should let a cat choose you rather than trying to choose a cat. Of all the ones we met, it seemed to take to Cathy the most strongly, and we viewed this as the more important compatibility check because we both know I have stronger cat-fu than she does. If a cat doesn’t take an active dislike to me (which is so unusual I can’t remember when it last happened) I will charm it eventually; this one likes me well enough to begin with that I’m sure we’ll do just fine.
It’s hard to avoid making comparisons with Sugar. First impression is that Zola is almost as human-friendly as Sugar was (which sounds like faint praise but is really like saying “almost as deep as the Pacific Ocean”) with a more placid, less active temperament. I’m not expecting him to be quite as outgoing with our houseguests, but I don’t think he’ll hide behind the furniture either. Likely he’ll just hang out nearby being mellow and making nice at anyone who approaches him. That’s typical behavior for Coon toms and he seems quite typical that way. He seems to be very gentle and un-clawful even by Coon standards, which is going some. I’d bet he’s great with small children.
We’re a little nervous, for all the obvious reasons. What if Zola has un-obvious behavior problems? Ill health? But it’s time. Our home feels a bit empty without a cat in it. Not for much longer!