Social Character

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Social Character

Your cat’s sociable nature and the extent to which she perceives social contact with another cat as stressful has an impact on your cat’s behaviour and the stress she will experience throughout her life. Although cats are naturally solitary hunters, they are still able to establish social relationships with other cats. So what’s going to affect this?

This sociable nature of your cat is mainly influenced by the following:

Sociable nature

Every cat is born naturally sociable to some extent. Some cats are naturally super-sociable while other cats don’t want anything to do with their fellow species members at all.

However, most cats are flexibly sociable. This means that they adapt to the social behaviour of another cat. Cats like these can be friendly and sociable (or at least neutral) when other cats are sociable and defensive and hostile when they receive hostile signals.

When you notice undesirable behaviour among your cats, in particular aggression and spraying, your cats may not be socially compatible.

One cat may be super sociable and constantly wants to play with the other cat while she doesn’t want to.

One cat wants to establish contact with your other cat that is not sociable at all, for whatever reason.

Now you have 2 options: either you put 2 sociable cats together or 2 cats that each prefer their own company without wanting to hunt down the other cat. As this is difficult to assess in advance the following tips will prove useful.

Socialisation of social interaction

Cats are an innately sociable species and kittens learn most of their social skills during the socialisation period in the first 16 weeks. This is the sensitive period where kittens learn all about the world and everything that comes with it, what is normal and how they should behave later on. Kittens mainly learn from experience, that is to say, from the way other cats react to their behaviour, and from what is pleasant or not.

This makes it important that kittens up to the age of 16 weeks have contact with cats other than their littermates or mother inasmuch as possible, semi-social cats that hiss at them included.

In this way kittens learn that a small hiss means that they shouldn’t come any closer and walk away, and that a ‘pprrrt’ is a friendly sound.

Of course these encounters must be controlled and safe and kittens must be kept safe at all times.

Older cats can inflict serious injuries on small kittens while playing (they grab kittens as prey) and during casual encounters.

Needless to say, the mother cat must also have a good bond with the other cats, because motherly aggression is no joke.

Always take heed when another cat hisses at a kitten as it may provoke severe aggression in the mother cat.

Social relations

Regardless of your cat’s sociable nature, the relationship with one particular cat or other cats also has an influence on your cat’s behaviour.

Like in humans, every social relationship between cats is unique. Sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn’t. While you are the best of friends with some people, there are others you will greet out of politeness, and others you’d rather avoid. On the whole, humans are sociable group creatures by nature, while cats are naturally solitary hunters.

This means that they have fewer social skills and signals than we do, will need less social contact and have less to no resilience when faced with conflict.

Relationships between cats are dictated by various factors, all of them unique and all of them with an impact on the many facets of behavioural modification, e.g. how we organise their environment, how we provide their resources, how we support the relationship, how we train our cat etc.

“We distinguish 5 types of social relationships” Bowen & Heath wrote in their amazing book ‘Behavioural Problems in Small Animals’ which was published in 2005.

Within one and the same social group, cats can be drawn to one other cat and form a pair, or befriend more than 2 cats, which we refer to as a clique. In general, these cats will be very tolerant towards one another, may share resources, but that doesn’t mean they always want to.

To keep the peace within the group we need to make sure that they can always avoid one another when they are in a less sociable mood. In practice though, I often see the opposite happen. Because the cats get along well, owners provide them with fewer resources than they naturally need, because they are capable of sharing resources… when they feel like it.

That’s where the risk lies because, once cats reach the age of 1.5 to 2 years, this will become a ticking time bomb as the slightest conflict (the presence of an outdoor cat, pain or illness, a strange smell in the house) can lead to the ‘break-up’ of the social group. Social groups are very flexible and can change at any time.

Other cats are social facilitators. These are good-natured, self-assured cats that are naturally very sociable and are part of several social groups within the household and transmit scents between cats that would not seek contact with one another by themselves.

Cats that do not display any affiliative or hostile behaviour towards other cats are known as satellite cats. These cats have accidental nose-to-nose contact with other cats, will sleep together on the bed when all is well and make the odd hiss at one another, but other than that, are not overly interested in social contact with the other cats in your household.

And then there is one last category: the despot cat. These are cats that, by nature, cannot or do not want to live with other cats under any circumstances. Because of their extreme anti-social behaviour we rarely find these cats in multi-cat households as owners soon realise that they will never integrate and quickly move these cats to a household without other cats.

These cats are usually very sociable towards people but will attack other cats at the drop of a hat. They will even launch at doors with a cat behind. It only stands to reason that a cat displaying this type of behaviour in your multi-cat household is a very stressful business and that the only thing for it is to separate your cats at once and rehome her as soon as possible.

This makes it important to know what the social relationship is like at home, because it will affect your cats’ behaviour and needs.

Introduction to other cats

As a therapist, I believe it is terribly important to reflect on how we introduce 2 cats to one another, for this will have life-long consequences.

During their first encounter, cats will naturally be enemies. With claws designed to kill and teeth made to tear flesh apart they can inflict life-threatening injuries on their opponent during a fight.

That’s why the first introduction to another cat will determine your old cat’s association with a new cat and the emotions within your home for the rest of their lives.

Countless owners have told me: “Oh, I just put them together, for 7 days I thought they were going to kill one another and then they were the best of friends.”

And I am genuinely happy for you that it worked out, but bear in mind that this is the exception to the rule and something we must avoid at all cost, for it’s not an ideal start for 2 cats that will have to put up with one another for the rest of their lives, is it?

Look at it from your own perspective: imagine coming home and finding a strange man sitting in your chair. He smells weird, eats all your food in the fridge and wants to sleep in your bed.

You have no idea whether the man is friendly, nice, kind or difficult, not to mention hostile. Now admit, you wouldn’t have the time to figure this out either, because by then it could be too late. So, what do you do? You call the police.

Well, your cat can’t call the police, she has no control over the situation and she can’t get rid of the intruder. She starts staring, growling and hissing to scare him away but it’s not working for the stranger is not going away.
Then she is forced to bring out the heavy artillery: physical violence.

And what’s the next thing owners tell me? “But for the first few weeks it went well, and then suddenly they started fighting.” This is a textbook example of owners being oblivious to the subtle Cold War that is taking place before their eyes.

Cats have not evolved to resolve confrontation. When they encounter a threat, they just run away or hide quickly. This is the best form of self-protection and conflict avoidance.

How do we as human beings prefer to get to know someone? At a café with a cold beer or at a summer bar with a cocktail in your hand, or at a dinner party or barbecue with friends where you can suss whether this person will harm you or not in a pleasant, safe environment. So, why should we simply throw 2 cats together?

Cats should always be introduced to one another gradually, based on training, not habituation. Habituation is exposure to a (possible) stress factor at a low level that gradually builds up, without your cat getting stressed.

Now the problem is that habituation simply doesn’t work because, at the slightest sight of the new cat, your old cat’s stress levels will go up, which immediately causes her to form a negative association. Believe you me, the risk just isn’t worth it.

Gradual introduction should be the standard procedure. It takes about 4 weeks to ensure that cats get along well for the next 20 years and that they enjoy each other’s company.

For the past 10 years, I’ve fought hard against all the Wild West advice on the subject, like:

– Let them fight it out, and they’ll find their place.
– Put them in a carrier or crate together, they’ll learn.
– Just give it some time.
– The dominant cat must make it clear ‘who’s boss’.

And more of that nonsense! Let me be very clear: this amounts to animal cruelty. Letting cats fight it out is unacceptable. They can’t resolve it by themselves for they never had to learn it during their evolution!

At best, cats will experience a temporary period of high stress and then look for a way to survive side by side, causing their owners to think that they have become good friends now, which is not the case. It is a survival strategy that may continue to cause stress day after day.

Learned behaviour

Cats learn about social interaction throughout their lives, not just during the socialisation period.

For example, an experience with one particular cat can influence your cat’s behaviour towards other cats in the future. If your cat has had pleasant social relationships with several other cats for years, she will be more inclined to be friendly to a new cat.

The opposite is also true. If a cat has had hostile encounters with cats inside or outside the household for years, she will be less likely to adopt a sociable attitude, even if your cat is sociable by nature.

Cats learn what’s good for them and not all through their lives. Learned behaviour should be taken into account where possible.

Love, Anneleen