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Cats are social creatures; contrary to popular belief they are not animals that prefer to live alone. While they can adjust to a solitary life, they also exist quite happily in a large family, whether of people, cats or both. Cats are, however, creatures of strict routine and habit. They don't deal well with change. A number of factors can affect a cat’s social position, including the introduction of a new person or cat to a home which can cause a great deal of stress.
Cats have a very structured, formalized "social tier" and a great deal of their emotional well-being comes from knowing where their place is on the social ladder and knowing that their place is secure. As long as social position on the ladder is in flux or open to challenge, your cats will be in a state of high level stress. (Think of it as if the company you work for has told you they're going to fire an employee – just not which employee. The stress from the threat of job loss stays with you at ALL times, always prevalent, not just at work).
To better understand cat social hierarchy it helps to begin by understanding something about feline communication methods.
Cat communication is a complicated mix of body language mixed with spatial relationship and gender. Their verbal language is relatively simple and limited compared to that of their physical communication.
Stance, angle of body, tail posture, ocular lid opening (eye blinking, eye slitting, etc.), whisker positioning, surroundings/situation - these are some of the physical indicators, with a variety of meaning added on related to distance from other animals and speed of approach, among other factors.
Pippin is a fixed female who is second on the female tier. She was originally in the fourth position, but disappeared outside for a little over a week. Upon returning she was much more aggressive and succeeded in jumping two tier slots with minimal aggressive posturing. One can only assume that her experiences outside increased her awareness of her physical capabilities and hence her self confidence.
Bumpers is a fixed male who is in the tier one male slot (a newcomer who effortlessly took this spot with no physical confrontation due to his relatively large size compared to the rest of the clan).
In normal everyday interaction, these two would be VERY aware of their relative placement on the social ladder. Any physical approach between these two would be done with some casual caution, giving the appropriate physical signals and cues when approaching or passing. These cues are essentially a second by second conversation that goes something like this;
Bumpers "I'm approaching to pass. Notice my movement is of a casual manner and speed, involving no challenge or threat. I'm larger than you but desire no physical confrontation. If my passing isn't amenable to you, please let me know."
Pippin "you have my permission to pass. You're a newcomer and I don't care for your coloration (Bumpers has yellow fur, none of the others in the group are anything but combinations of black, grey and white), but I acknowledge your position as Tier One Male. Just be sure you don't change approach and vector.
Any change will be treated as a potentially hostile threat. I don't want to fight such a large cat, but I WILL defend my rights. (I've BEEN places!!! I've SEEN things. I KNOW what I'm doing!)"
This conversation is technically repeated EVERY SECOND as the cat approaches and passes, adjusting according to distance. Should Bumpers be forced to deviate for any reason, the whole "discussion" will adjust accordingly.
The whole exchange is a confirmation and evaluation of status. Other cats in the vicinity will often watch carefully, looking for any signs of weakness that could indicate a potential chance to move up the social ladder.
Considering every action a cat takes in the sight of another cat involves complex social communication cues, is it any surprise that sudden removals from or introductions to the group will upset the status quo and cause high levels of stress?
Introducing New People to the Family:
People have a somewhat ambiguous place in the social tier of the cat hierarchy. Cats face the following problems in trying to figure out just where a person fits in;
Language barrier: communication is limited. A person's "cat vocabulary" is limited; we often understand what they're saying, but "speaking cat" ourselves... we aren't that good at.
(It goes without saying a cat's human vocabulary is VERY limited).
Our large size and obvious control and mastery of the environment place us in a top tier position.
Yet, cats can have difficulty adjusting to a human's obvious blunders and faux pas when it comes to physical communication. A cat will be shocked, confused, and not a little frightened when a human, especially one the cat is not familiar with, repeatedly ignores these physical cues, rushes up to them, and swoops down crashing through all levels of physical social approach.
As a result a cat will cling tenaciously to those limited verbal and physical communication cues they understand from those humans in the household.
When a new human enters the household, it's a stressful time. Often the human will dismiss the "cat" as just a pet of limited consequence to the household, or worse yet, exhibit small indicators of dislike or jealousy.
Since cats are primarily reactive when learning “cat – human” communication, if the person doesn't
make an honest attempt to learn and establish boundaries with the cat, it's not uncommon for your cat to react in a hostile manner. Two common ways they express hostility is through hiding and/ or refusal to use their litter box.
Cats, when placed in a defensive position dealing with humans psychologically, will quickly realize they have very little real control over events in the household. So they automatically use one of the few weapons in their arsenal to strike back and make a statement; where they do their toilet. The reaction could be a statement of hostility;
"I'm a member of this household. Just like my litter box is mine, so are these other spaces to use as I deem necessary!"
"You've made me feel so unwelcome in these rooms that I can no longer safely enter them. Therefore, they're about as useful to me as my litter box; a place to do my toilet and then avoid."
A human must always remember it's THEIR responsibility to establish social rapport with a cat. This is why you don't approach quickly, don't immediately pick up. Picking up a cat can be a show of affection, but to the unwilling cat it simply establishes you as a larger, stronger predator that can do as they please, and NO animal submits to that treatment willingly. Keep in mind that "slowly approaching" applies to leaning over and reaching out as well.
People aren't often aware of the emotional impact they're having on a small animal when they bend over or reach to pick them up. Imagine if Godzilla showed up at your home one day and decided to pick you up to give you a nice cuddle. Intimidating despite the best intentions, no?
Introducing a new cat is an entirely different matter.
Introducing New Kittens to the Family:
Kittens are relatively easy to introduce into the household. Since they're kittens they'll automatically be on the lowest tier of the social ladder. Technically, they're abrogated to that special "children" status. They are expected to make mistakes, and are corrected accordingly. They EXPECT to be corrected. Usually a kitten will either be accepted with relative ease or subjected to what appears to us to be a brutal dressing down in the form of violent hissing and a number of swipes and strikes.
This may be frightening to watch, but it's perfectly natural and necessary. As long as the kitten sits there, docilely accepts the treatment and the episode stops after a short period (ten seconds to a minute) then there's nothing to worry about. However, if the behavior persists for much more than a minute or so, and seems to be particularly physical in nature, then it could be best to separate the two and treat the introduction of the kitten as one would an adult.
Introducing New Cars to The Family:
Some cats, having had no real experience with other cats, let alone kittens, lack the appropriate social learning to cope with the situation. They also may they feel particularly threatened by the newcomer. If the initial introduction between the two cats goes poorly, here is an effective method for slowly introducing them to each other in a safe, controlled manner until you're sure that the situation is stable.
Start by placing the new cat in a separate room from the others (try not to keep the new cat in the bedroom if your present cat sleeps in there with you. It would make for a VERY bad start between the two, due to understandable resentment). After a day or so, your cat will be very aware that the scent of the new cat is in the household and on you (this assumes you ARE spending time with the new cat). Next, if possible, set up a screen divide to separate the two cats. This will allow them a chance to get used to being visually aware of each other while removing the possibility of violence.
Finally, remove the screen. Pick a day you'll be around and be sure to observe their actions. Try not to step in and interfere when they get physical with each other; it's best to let them resolve the situation and establish their social positions relative to each other. Breaking it up will only add to the stress of the situation and prolong the inevitable and possibly create a tension that could lead to a very sudden, violent confrontation.
Of course, if you see actual wounding happening at any point in the confrontation, separate them immediately.
A challenge can easily go on for five minutes, with little or no physical action. Let them resolve it in their own way. If for some reason there's a need to break it up, be sure to do it impartially. Don't treat one as the aggressor or the victim. You could get a negative reaction that could make matters worse. Remember, neither cat is doing anything that it shouldn’t.
If you must separate them, go back to the previous adjustment stage (separate rooms, blocking screen) for a day or so and then try again.
Remember, cats aren’t human beings, they have their own social rules and mores they live by. Acknowledge them and you’ll have a happy, contented, household.
8/26/2008 © Savas – P.Rosen