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The Cat-Human Relationship and Factors That Affect It

A new book by cat expert Sarah Brown explores how cats fit into human society.

This is an excerpt from The Cat: A Natural and Cultural History by Dr. Sarah Brown, a cat behavior expert with 30 years' experience working with cats and their humans, with rescue organizations, and in the pet industry.1 She is also the coauthor of the definitive textbook The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat. In her new book, Dr. Brown takes a scientific approach to explaining how to best build a bond with a cat as they become socialized to people and their surroundings, and how a variety of factors influence their personality.

Princeton University Press
Source: Princeton University Press

The cat-human relationship has come a long way from the early tentative, mutually beneficial arrangement that developed around the granaries and villages of the Fertile Crescent around 10,000 years ago. Somewhere along the way, while humans firstly worshipped and then relentlessly persecuted them, cats learned to communicate with us. Just as they had to learn to put aside their solitary tendencies and tolerate other cats, they began to adapt to live in ever-closer proximity to people. For this to take place, cats needed to be able to be comfortable interacting with and being around humans—a process known as “socialization.”

For many animals there is a critical period in their development during which they need to encounter individuals of their own kind and from other species in order to become socialized to them and feel at ease in their company. Scientists have shown that, in order for adult cats to be affectionate with humans, they need to have been handled during the 2- to 7-week period after their birth. This is known as the “sensitive period” of kitten development and has become a crucial point when educating owners and breeders on how to produce adult cats that are happy alongside people in the modern world. A kitten that has not been handled at all by around 8 weeks is unlikely to develop a relationship with humans—such cats usually become feral in nature. Sadly, many kittens born to free-ranging cats, particularly if the mother herself is unsocialized, are not discovered and handled early enough to socialize and they too become distant from people.

Although it is important for socialization to begin within the sensitive period, it does not have a definitive start and finish—provided socialization commences within this window of time, it will continue as the kitten grows into adulthood, building on the positive association with people it has acquired as a youngster.

 Inge Wallumrød/Pexels, free download
Source: Inge Wallumrød/Pexels, free download

Even when kittens do encounter people during their sensitive period, studies have shown that successful socialization depends on a number of factors:

1. The more a kitten is handled, the friendlier it will be to people—those handled for 40 minutes a day are friendlier than those handled for only 15 minutes, although above about an hour of handling, this effect does not increase further.

2. The number of people who actually handle the kitten is also important—the more individuals who handle a kitten, the more accepting it will be of new people in the future.

3. Finally, it is also important to introduce a kitten to women, men, children, and adults to broaden its impression of what a “human” actually is.

In addition to early socialization, it is important to introduce and accustom young kittens to everyday stimuli—those objects, sounds, and smells that they are likely to encounter more as they grow and move to new homes. Known as “habituation,” this can include smells that have been gathered on a cloth, the sounds of vacuum cleaners and washing machines, different types of floor surfaces, and general household objects for them to investigate, such as paper bags and boxes.

Other factors besides early socialization can influence a cat’s relationship with people. A kitten’s mother, for example, can affect its friendliness toward humans, both through her own behavior, which a kitten will inevitably mimic to a certain extent, and through her genetic input. It has been shown that the temperament of the father has a distinct effect on the subsequent behavior of his kittens, with friendlier fathers producing friendlier kittens, providing socialization takes place during the sensitive period. Since male domestic cats are not involved in the raising of their offspring, this must be genetically inherited.

The personality of cats and how to measure it is a complex topic, and one that has generated much debate. Most studies seem to agree that, rather than inheriting “friendly” or “unfriendly” genes, kittens inherit from their father the tendency to be either “bold” or “shy.” Bold cats are more likely to approach anything new—including people—and so, as kittens, tend to be more receptive to lots of attention during the sensitive period of socialization. This sometimes results in them becoming more “friendly” as a result. Given time and patient but plentiful handling, shy kittens can overcome their timidity and turn out as equally friendly adults. As they develop and leave their mother, potentially moving to new homes, cats encounter a range of new experiences, positive and negative, which may reinforce or alter their early perceptions of people. In this way, genetic and environmental factors combine to produce cats that display varying levels of ease around humans.

Interactions with a family cat may vary according to the age and gender of the family member concerned. Women, for example, are more likely to interact with a cat by getting down to their level on the floor, whereas men tend to stay sitting to interact with them. Adults tend to speak to a cat before interacting, giving it an opportunity to approach or move away according to its mood, whereas children tend to skip this part and often approach a cat directly, which can be met with mixed reactions, depending on the cat’s personality and its previous experience of children.

With so many variables at work, the huge range of relationships between pet cats and their owners is not surprising. Many cats regard their owners simply as convenient providers of shelter and food, and will spend hours away from the home, only fleetingly passing the time of day when they return for a snack. Others may settle on a window ledge, waiting patiently for their owners to return, then follow them around, and curl up on their lap the minute they sit down.

Research has shown that cats prefer to interact with their owner than with a complete stranger and that they are more responsive to their owner’s voice than that of a stranger. Some cats, particularly certain pure breeds, develop such strong attachments to their owners that they suffer from separation anxiety when left alone—expressed in various ways, including inappropriate toileting, excessive vocalization, or overgrooming.

Aloof, affectionate, serene, endearing, exasperating, elegant, enigmatic, and even savage—the cat has been described in many ways throughout its shared history with humankind. It is most notorious, however, for its independence, a quality that some may scorn but others truly admire. And yet it is partly this independence that has enabled the cat to become one of the most popular pets today, in some countries outranking even the dog as the favorite companion animal. People look for a pet that is easy to care for, ideally one that can adapt to living in more confined spaces, keep itself clean, and remain relatively undemanding, while still providing companionship. A tall order, but the domestic cat has most definitely risen to the challenge.

Facebook image: Milles Studio/Shutterstocm


Note 1:

Excerpted from THE CAT: A Natural and Cultural History by Sarah Brown. Copyright © 2020 by Quarto Publishing plc. Published by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

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