Life on the Wild Side – Where Even the Tamest Cats Live
“Well, then,” the Cat went on, “you see a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.”
“I call it purring, not growling,” said Alice.
“Call it what you like,” said the Cat.
—Alice in Wonderland
THE FUNDAMENTAL CAUSES OF MANY UNWANTED CAT BEHAVIORS go back much further in time than the immediate triggers you may see—straight to the cat’s instinctual make-up. I’ll focus in this chapter on three key causes of problem behaviors, both primal and present day. They are:
• super-territoriality (which comes into full flower upon a cat’s entrance into social maturity)
• incomplete domestication
• inadequate socialization
There is no animal quite like a cat. That’s why we must expect them to act like nothing other than themselves, and treat them only as their nature dictates. Cats are unique in two ways that I’ll stress here. First, most cat species are by nature self-reliant and very, very territorial, a fact that brings with it a host of natural behaviors that can be challenging to human sensibilities. Second, even house cats are not fully domesticated (and some seem to retain more of their wildcat ancestors’ instincts than others). For behavioral purposes, it’s better to think of them as half wild. Welcome to a new way of thinking.
There are rural wildcat sanctuaries all over the United States that take in all kinds of wildcats—lions, tigers, lynxes, bobcats, African servals, caracles. People love the idea of owning these beautiful cats while they’re kittens, but as the cats grow and their natural behaviors become more pronounced (resulting in destruction of the owners’ homes), their owners surrender them to these zoolike animal sanctuaries. What are the behaviors that make their original owners give up? Destructive clawing, aggression, and urine marking.
All other domesticated animals began in the wild as group-oriented animals, and they remain so. Horses, pigs, sheep, cattle, donkeys, ducks, chickens, goats, and dogs (like wolves) all live, by instinct, in groups. The evolutionary rationale for being part of a group or pack has to do with survival: When food resources are inconsistent and distributed over a large territory, it makes sense for animals to band together for protection or cooperative hunting. The very size of some predators’ prey, like that of wolves, also requires the predators to hunt in groups.
Most of these now-domesticated animals were in deep trouble, having difficulty surviving as a species, until man intervened. By now their wild counterparts are either extinct or nearly so. The wild Przewalski’s horse, the forebear of the modern horse, survives only in zoos and human-managed herds. All wild sheep species are endangered. You haven’t heard of the wild ancestor of the cow because the aurochs is long extinct. Wolves? There are only 150,000 in all the world. Domestication was often the only reason that some of these species continue to live today. But as Stephen Budiansky points out in his priceless The Character of Cats, “Cats were not in evolutionary trouble in the wild; they did not need to throw in their lot with man to survive; they did not undergo the rapid and automatic genetic transformation that broke down the barriers between the wild and the tame in the case of other wild beasts that became malleable and accommodating partners of man. Primitive man succeeded in taming the ancestors of dogs, cattle, sheep, and other true domesticates largely because these species had the inherent genetic potential to tame themselves genetically once people appeared in their environment.” But the ancestors of cats? “Cats refused to play this game.”1
The ancestor of the domestic cat (and the feral cat) is the African wildcat. Although most of the other thirty-six feline species in the world are endangered or threatened (though often not because of their competition with nature but with man’s incursions), wildcats have spread across the world. There are 40 to 70 million feral cats in the United States alone. Of all of man’s animal friends, cats are, as Budiansky puts it, “the least tamed and the most successful.” He adds, “Cats have spread over the world in the company of man faster than man himself ever did, all the while keeping one foot in the jungle.” Here is the only place where I might disagree with him slightly: Our cats have at least two, and probably three, feet still in the jungle.
So cats didn’t need our help. Many still don’t, a fact some people cite as evidence of their incomplete domestication.2 Moreover, the cats of most species don’t rely on each other for purposes of survival, either. Like the human and the shark, the crocodile and the cockroach, they are evolutionary champions. What helped them survive? Well, exactly the same natural traits that make them behave in ways you may not like, including their self-reliant nature and their many territorial behaviors. In other words, it’s what makes them cats.
Why do our cats act as they do? “By the process of Darwinian evolution, cats behave in a way that is well adapted to the type of social and physical environment in which their ancestors lived.”3 So who were their ancestors, and how did they live? The answers vary, depending on which cat species we are talking about, some of them being more social than others. Unlike social felines like lions, and, according to recent speculation, even sabertooth cats,4 the domestic cat’s ancestor, the still-extant African wildcat, is generally solitary. African wildcats have large territories and live far from each other, so they don’t need a tight social structure and don’t go in for all the appeasement behaviors you see in dogs. Unlike lions, which hunt cooperatively, both wild and domestic cats always hunt alone. Wildcats interact with each other harmoniously only during mating (males and females) and the first few months of kitten rearing (mother and kittens). That doesn’t mean such cats can’t become socialized, however. Under certain circumstances, they do.
Cats Can Make Friends, Too
Let’s be clear: Domestic cats have recently been proven to be quite “social” in the sense that they like to be with other cats as well as with humans and other special friends. They mutually groom one another and bond, they have preferred associates, females midwife and cooperatively rear one another’s kittens. Indeed, cats have twice as many vocalizations as dogs and many ways of communicating through scent, touch, and posture that would not exist if they weren’t social beings. Even when cats aren’t in close proximity, they are always communicating—by means of scent and visual markings.
Even domestic house cats don’t have the tight social hierarchy that dogs do. And while dogs love to go anywhere as long as they’re with the group, wild and domestic cats are relative homebodies, guarding and feeling more secure in the territory they know so well. Nonetheless, I do know a few cats, namely some of mine, that love a car ride, especially if I’m there with them—evidence not so much of their love of travel but of the bond they feel with me. Most of my cats come running when I walk in the door or call them, and our cat Barthelme follows my son and me around so much, lifting a paw or standing on his hind legs for a petting, that we’ve nicknamed him Puppycat. So I want to make clear that cats can form social bonds and appear very doglike socially. It’s a myth that they are purely solitary and antisocial creatures.
Cats have occasionally cobbled together intricate social networks for reasons known only to themselves. Consider the cats, all strangers, who some years ago were seen every evening coming to the borders of their territories—near a small square on the outskirts of Paris—to hang out in a group for varying periods of time. They sat close to each other, grooming and observing one another, with surprisingly few displays of hostility. Sometimes, said observers, the tomcats “paraded” before the group. Then by midnight they all dispersed, back to their respective territories.
But absent a pathological separation anxiety, cats don’t badly need to be social in quite the same way humans and dogs do. (Thus the occasional “aloof” house cat.) Cats’ more self-reliant nature is linked to an extreme territoriality you won’t find in other animals. That territoriality, far greater than in dogs, gives us the champion-survivor behaviors that most people fail to see are natural aspects of catness: their suspicion, their dislike of novelty, their single-minded predatory behavior, their spraying and claw marking, and their aggression, especially toward newcomers. Their territoriality can even cause compulsive behaviors, and can also cause an intimidated cat’s avoidance of litter box areas, which leads to elimination problems. It all starts here. I’ll return to this territoriality again and again, but now let’s look briefly at the psychology of the dog, because so many cat owners confuse their cat’s psychology with that of dogs, and vainly try to modify their cat’s behavior accordingly.
THE DOG/CAT DIFFERENCE
Wild Dog crawled into the Cave and laid his head on the Woman’s lap, and said, “O my Friend and Wife of my Friend, I will help Your Man to hunt through the day, and at night I will guard your Cave.”
“Ah!” said the Cat, listening. “That is a very foolish Dog.” And he went back through the Wet Wild Woods waving his wild tail, and walking by his wild lone.
—RUDYARD KIPLING,Just So Stories “The Cat That Walked by Himself”
Dogs: Always Eager to Please
Witness the dog. See Spot run—back to the pack every time. Dogs are quintessential pack animals. The mere act ofbeing in the packsatisfies a real survival craving. A dog, alone, is a most miserable beast. It’s not part of healthy dog social life for a dog to be or feel alone. That’s why it’s normal for your dog to follow you (the alpha of the pack) around, to be desperate to go on a walkwith you, or to sleepwith you, or to listen and respond toyourcommands. For a dog, pleasing other pack members, especially those of higher rank, which includes you, is paramount. Humans have a long, close history with dogs: at least ten thousand years of avid domestication, even symbiosis. No other animal has been so bred and selected to hang on to our every change in tone of voice or facial expression. “To his dog,” Aldous Huxley once wrote, “every man is Napoleon.”
Dogs do better at reading cues from humans than do other animals in part because we spent millennia breeding them to have an instinctively powerful desire to look at us and respond (a desire and ability completely absent in wolves).5 At the same time, humans have bred in dogs a facial musculature that gives rise to a rich vocabulary of apparent expressions, which humans choose to interpret as if they were coming from another human: sad, forlorn, happy, guilty, embarrassed, curious, etc. My Great Dane, Jazzy, seeks out the expressions on my face as if they were signs from heaven. If she could think in words, they might be: Approov? disaproov? Hapy? Stay in pack? R u luking at treat cubbard? My cats—not so interested. (On the other hand, maybe cats can read our facial expressions, but just can’t think of a good enough reason to pay attention.)
Cats: Always Eager to Be Pleased
As many people who are not fond of cats have found, cats have no intrinsic desire to please us. Some people resent this autonomy; others prize it. As the joke goes, a dog looks at all the things we provide for it and thinks, You must be God. A cat looks at all the things we provide for it and thinks, I must be God. Here’s another favorite: “Dogs have masters; cats have staff.”
Cats: Forever Wild
Besides not living in groups, the other primary way that cats are unique among domesticates is that their domestication is only partial—and relatively recent. Dogs were first domesticated—separated from wolves—at least fifteen thousand years ago (and according to recent findings, perhaps as long as 33,000 years ago), sheep and goats about nine thousand years ago, cattle seven thousand, and horses six thousand. While archeologists in Cyprus have discovered a cat skeleton, likely an African wildcat, that had been interred alongside a human’s as far back as ninety-five hundred years ago, cats don’t show up routinely in domestic settings alongside man until about thirty-six hundred years ago, in Egypt, when they were brought into human establishments first to control rodents and later for religious reasons. They still weren’t domesticated, even then. Horses, dogs, sheep, goats, and camels all have walk-on roles in the Bible. The cat, still wild in most of the world at the time and living with humans only in Egypt, is absent.
It seems that you can take the cat out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the cat. All other domesticated animals have been bred and selected, over and over again, for domestic traits, with the wild traits bred out. But for most of our shared history, humans did not selectively breed cats for domestication features at all.* Even today cats are bred primarily for physical traits.
Our lack of control over cats’ genes is obvious: While cats have been breeding in our midst for many years, house cats and their African wildcat ancestors are still the same species—Felis silvestris (though sometimes domestic cats are denoted as the subspecies Felis silvestris catus for clarity). The genetic differences among and between African wildcats, European wildcats, and domestic cats are no larger than the difference between, say, any two domestic cats. Genetic studies have proven that domestic cats differ from their wildcat cousins almost solely in … their hair color—and, in some breeds, a few other superficial physical differences brought about through breeding.
While it’s convenient to refer to house cats as domesticated animals, they’re actually closer to what we call man’s exploited captives, like deer, camels, and Asian elephants, or human symbionts like the rat or house sparrow. We don’t consider these animals tame. Cats are otherworldly precisely because from a behavioral perspective they are still inherently wild in so many ways.
True, house cats’ ancestors had to be minimally tamable, capable of and even desirous of socialization. We probably wouldn’t have pet cats at all if the African wildcat had not existed. By contrast, the European wildcat is so unfriendly that it could turn the most committed cat fanatics into dog lovers. Even being around one of the kittens of a European wildcat is, in the words of one zoologist, “eerie.” Another observer said their four-week-old kittens “looked right through you as if you were not there.” They are impassive in the face of encouragement to play or to interact with humans. It would be humbling to any cat owner to face such implacable indifference. As they reach sexual maturity, European wildcats become, in the words of another zoologist, “proud and bold.” They act like they’re as big as leopards. They routinely intimidate large, ferocious dogs. Even when hand-reared, they are “fierce and intractable.”
Split from their European sisters only twenty thousand years ago, African wildcats are much friendlier and more intrinsically tamable than the northern cats, giving them the genetic head start that made the human-cat bond possible. European naturalists in Africa in the 1800s described how easily the indigenous peoples caught and kept African wildcat kittens, “reconciling them to life about their huts and enclosures, where they grow up and wage their natural warfare against the rats.”6 Another European, writing from Rhodesia (today, Zimbabwe) in 1968, found that while the wildcat kittens were initially difficult to handle, soon enough they grew unnervingly affectionate:
These cats never do anything by halves; for instance, when returning home after their day out they are inclined to become superaffectionate. When this happens, one might as well give up on what one is doing, for they will walk all over the paper you are writing on, rubbing themselves against your face or hands; or they will jump up on your shoulder and insinuate themselves between your face and the book you are reading, roll on it, purring and stretching themselves, sometimes falling off in their enthusiasm and, in general, demanding your undivided attention.7
However, people who have been befriended by African wildcats report that while they are indeed “superaffectionate” toward humans, they are even less likely to put up with human punishments than domestic cats. They are also highly territorial, and may prey on other animals in the household. Now consider that our cats split from the African wildcats only four thousand years ago—a blink in genetic time. (Compare their 4,000 years of divergence to the 1 million years separating the lion and leopard.8) No wonder we still see so much of the wild in them. Real aficionados of “domestic” cats appreciate them precisely because they feel a sense of awe, feel honored, that these essentially wild beings choose to live and be with us.
HISTORY OF THE HOUSE CAT
Wildcats likely began to associate with humans about eleven to ten thousand years ago, when agricultural societies arose in the Fertile Crescent. Grain stocks would have attracted mice, and humans would have quickly grasped that cats excelled at disposing of them. And they are indeed formidable hunters, even today, and even when provided with food. One cat was recorded as having killed 22,000 mice in twenty-three years, or about 80 a month, every month. A kitten managed to kill four hundred rats in four weeks, all before six months of age.9
Cats leapt into Britain between AD 300 and 500, courtesy of merchant ships and soldiers. In Asia, the spread of Mi-Ke (calico) cats was facilitated by the belief that they could predict storms at sea. Cats have always been well-regarded in Islamic countries, even put under protection of scripture, because they were Mohammed’s favorite animal.
Christian countries, however, have had a more tortured history with the cat. When cats were first brought into Europe, they were believed to have appeared in Jesus’ stable to protect him from the Devil. But a variety of other events, such as the cat’s association with the pagan moon goddess Diana, led Christians to associate the cat with the Devil and witchcraft. In Europe they were exterminated, even burned, throughout the Middle Ages. So were the people, especially women, who showed excessive interest in them. Cats were nearly exterminated in Europe, a victory for vermin and the plague they carried, the Black Death, which wiped out between one-third and one-fourth of the population.
But the cat’s usefulness ultimately overrode the superstitions: When the Crusaders returned to Europe with an infestation of the brown rat and the plague, the world’s most effective rodent controller was again tolerated. Serving the same purpose, cats came to the Americas aboard British ships in the 1600s. In monasteries, cats were allowed to protect precious manuscripts from rodents; monks preferred cats of a certain color and coat, and thus were the Korat and Chartreux breeds introduced. And when microbes, or germs, were discovered in the 1800s by Pasteur, the cat’s relative cleanliness brought it even closer to favor. This was all long before the mountains of evidence demonstrating the significant health benefits to humans of pet companionship.
Taming the Wild: The Socialization Process
Since cats aren’t genetically tame, the only way to make them friendly—to other cats, and to people—is to socialize them. This process must occur during a very sensitive five-week period after birth. The kitten’s mother, other kittens, and humans all have a role to play in the socialization process, and if it is to be successful, it has to take place between the ages of two and seven weeks. How well your cat was socialized to other cats as a kitten plays a huge role in how well your cat will get along with other cats now and in the future. The same holds true for a cat’s relationships with people. If kittens do not interact with people during this “sensitive period” between two and seven weeks, and do not have the instructive example of seeing their mother interacting with people, then it may be very hard to socialize them to human contact later. Thus kittens born to feral cats can be socialized to people if the mother allows them to be handled by people, but, conversely, even a house-born kitten can quickly revert to feral (unsocialized) behavior if the people in the household have not made an effort to socialize it. Cats are always just one step away from being wild.
Socialization attempts by humans before two weeks make little or no difference, and after seven weeks are much less likely to succeed. Chances are high that a cat not socialized during the sensitive period won’t relate well to people, to the family dog, and possibly not to the other cats in the family, either. Such an animal is “handicapped” in normal social situations and undergoes “a great deal of stress if forced into” one, says Dr. Bonnie Beaver.10 Millions of cats’ lives would be saved each year if humans properly socialized kittens. It is also absolutely crucial that young kittens remain with their littermates and mother until they are twelve weeks old. Otherwise, you are likely to see more behavior issues, such as increased aggression and random activity. Kittens separated too early will be more excitable and slower to calm down, and they won’t learn appropriate play behavior (see Play Aggression in Chapter 7), which is something their mother and, secondarily, their littermates are meant to teach them.
Responsible breeders and cat shelters will make sure to gently and safely expose kittens to a wide range of people and possibly to other species (like dogs), so that when they go to their new homes, they are properly socialized. Being handled by people has many positive effects on development, such as the age at which kittens open their eyes, become weaned from and less dependent on Mom, explore more, or, in the case of Siamese, develop their distinctive coloring.11
You can socialize a kitten very well with as little as fifteen minutes a day of daily handling during the sensitive period. An hour is probably ideal, and, according to studies, more probably won’t help,12 but you’ll probably want to play with your precious ball of fur for longer, because it’s so much fun. Kittens can become very attached to whatever they are socialized to. If you’ve seen pictures of cats sleeping with dogs, playing nice with ducks or mice, or snuggling with gorillas, you have seen the power of early socialization.
THE WELL-FED KITTEN
Good nutrition is also critical to socialization (and other aspects of growing up). As with human children, kittens who are malnourished for any reason—because their mother is, or because they have been separated from their mother—may experience poor brain development, underdeveloped learning abilities, and delayed physical maturation. They are more reactive to stimuli and less responsive to other cats. Males show more play aggression and females may climb more or less than usual. Both sexes show increased vocalization and difficulty bonding with the all-important queen. They have more accidents in play. Mild or brief malnutrition may be undone with a proper diet; in cases of severe malnutrition, learning disabilities are more likely to be permanent. Kittens raised without their mothers or whose mothers were fed a low-protein diet within a month before or after birth show retarded or overly gregarious social behaviors.
Kittens are also highly imitative. Dr. Beaver writes of a kitten raised with dogs that learned to raise its leg on a tree after watching its companions.13 I knew of a kitten that saw my client use toilet paper to pick up an errant kitty stool. After the kitten’s next deposit, she sought out some toilet paper, brought it back to the stool, and gently tucked it in. I’ve heard of a cat who watched a fox dive into a molehill over and over, catching moles, after which the cat developed a habit of doing the same.
Unfortunately, if a kitten was not properly socialized, you cannot entirely reverse the consequences. Owners of feral cats especially have to manage their expectations. In one study, nearly half of feral kittens who had not been handled by humans before seven weeks of age could not be held by their owners for one minute. However, the owners said they were still happy with their untamed little pets. Expectations are everything. And even if these cats would rather not be touched a lot or not sit in a lap, they may follow their owners around, giving and seeking attention and affection in other ways, and forming very close bonds with their caretakers.
While you can’t go back and socialize your cat, you can introduce cats, and even reintroduce poorly socialized cats, to one another in ways that promote harmony. I discuss the crucial art of the introduction in the next chapter.
Territoriality, Conflict, and Social Maturity
To understand your cat’s propensity toward unwanted behaviors, you need to understand feline territoriality. A cat’s social behaviors (or “problems”) are closely linked to his tolerance for sharing his home range, which, indoors and out, overlaps with other cats’. In the wild, male cats travel throughout a home range of about 153 acres; females about 42. A territory, which is the area a cat defends against other cats, is usually smaller than a home range, but cats’ territories in the wild are still considerably larger than our houses. And the closer one cat gets to another’s core territory, the more aggressive the defender will be.
Fortunately for us, domestic cats may be not only inherently less shy and more sociable than African wildcats, but more willing to live in social groups that share territory, especially if they grew up in a group. Even feral females, usually under the watchful eye of a dominant matriarch, will set up a kind of Ministry of Mutual Defense and Welfare. The girls share duties of defense, kitten training—jointly rearing and even suckling the kittens—and hunting or bringing back delicacies from the garbage dump or someone’s backyard birdhouse. (Males are far less likely to join a colony or to participate in rearing than they are to try to eat the young.) A queen who gives birth may be aided by a female who quietly cuts the umbilical cords (with her teeth), helpfully eats the placentas, and licks clean the kittens’ perianal areas. (You think you’ve got good girlfriends?) And like domestic cats, feral cats curl up and sleep together, and groom one another in ways that we find touching. In fact, feral cats fight each other less frequently than do our house cats.
Why would house cats fight more than feral cats? When a feral cat feels threatened, he can simply melt away into the extra space that the outdoors provides, but indoor cats, forced to live within four walls and to share more crowded resources, have to delineate territory in a pressure cooker. Consider that in a 10-room house, indoor males will try to claim a territory of 4 to 5 rooms, and females 3 to 3.6. Then consider that in the United States and several European countries, there are more cats per household than ever before (and most of us are certainly not fortunate enough to live in ten-room houses, either). We’re crowding our cats. Think of five toddlers in a room, with two toys.
For cats, issues of rank and territory are inextricably entwined, so cats look for ways to move up in rank in order to get more territory and vice versa. The dominance hierarchy is relative; social ranks depend on particular locations or circumstances. One cat may be the higher-ranking cat in the morning and be found sitting at the top of the cat tree, but later in the day he may defer to another cat in that location. Similarly, a higher-ranking cat may defer to a lower-ranking cat in the latter’s sleeping area. Often it can be just a matter of time before they work things out between them. Cat hierarchy is so interconnected with issues of territory—who gets what space at what time—that cat behaviorists have a term to describe the time-sharing arrangements: the spatio-temporal hierarchy.
Cats who get along well will usually share the same space or pathways to and from important resources, even during the same times of day. But cats who are feeling fearful or territorial (and some cats are more territorial than others) may change their intended paths. Like teenagers staking out their own space, territorial cats spend more time in their own rooms or far away from one another. Sometimes the only time you will see these cats together in one area is when they’re with you on your bed or couch. (The bed can truly signify contentment and security. Your cats may view it as a safe zone.)
However, such jockeying may not always be peaceful. It can involve various forms of inter-cat aggression, and with aggression comes stress—hence spraying. The increase in multicat households sharply increases the odds of unwanted behaviors. In single-cat homes, the chances of the cat being sent to a shelter for behavior problems are 28 percent. Add a second cat and it’s about 70 percent.14 The likelihood of a cat spraying in a one-cat household is about 25 percent, but by the time you shoehorn ten cats into a house, the probability has increased to just about 100 percent.
FORGET THE ALPHA MODEL:DOGS ARE FROM MARS,CATS ARE FROM VENUS
If there is a Mars and Venus among domesticated animals, it would be the dog and the cat. In fact, the difference between the psychology of dogs and cats may be even greater than that between human males and females. Yet many cat owners who are familiar with dogs suffer from an irresistible temptation to project the dog mind onto the cat, which usually involves borrowing the alpha model concept of behavior from dogs. This is a big mistake. Regardless of the validity of the alpha model for dogs—a model that many dog experts dispute,† most alpha research having been done on the very different wolf, whose line diverged from the dog over ten thousand years, and four thousand generations of breeding, ago—dog and cat instincts and languages are quite different, and the alpha model definitely does not apply to cats. It has no relevance to the way they relate to you, or to the way they relate to each other when they have to share a territory—for insofar as cats have a hierarchical relationship to one another, it has to do with territory.
While cat colonies may have an alpha male in the sense that there may be one cat who simply has taken over more territory, cats do not behave like alpha wolves, and any feline group will lack a clear linear hierarchy. A cat’s social system is very loosely knit; there may be some hierarchy, but it is much more fluid and subtle, and can change with the time of day and location, cats being experts at time sharing.
While cats’ brains are of course similar to dogs’ and they learn in similar ways, many of the approaches used with dogs will not translate to cats (a notable exception is clicker training; see Appendix A).
What you may also see are the hisses or spats—the external evidence of competition. Cats have a less exacting social hierarchy than dogs, so conflict is even more likely if you have cats of similar assertiveness who are unwilling to back down or defer to another cat. It’s the cats closest in rank that usually do the most fighting. The probability of your cat seeing or otherwise sensing the existence of a strange cat outside your house is also higher than ever. That leads to even more behavior issues, as you’ll see.
Luckily for us, domestic cats have developed an ingenious solution to the problem of limited household territory and resources: the time-share arrangement mentioned above. Even before humans had invented the beach condo and ski villa time-share, cats had figured out how to share the same space at different times. Through trial and error, scent marking to communicate information (see Chapter 9), and the performance of a finely nuanced dance, they often make it work.
But not always. Many, many behavior problems begin when cats reach social maturity, and we see just how territorial the cats really are. Sometimes even cats who were very well socialized as kittens can become hostile to their fellow cats because of territorial issues. While kittens are not born territorial, social maturity, which they enter between the ages of two and four, eventually drives them to it. (Sexual maturity is different from social maturity; it may happen as early as five months of age so don’t underestimate those kittens!) Upon social maturity they say good-bye to the carefree days of kittenhood and begin to look at their environment through a serious territorial lens. The survival instinct prompts them to focus on protecting themselves by securing territory and makes them possessive of resources—at which point the troubles in your household may begin.
Cats who were the best of friends may suddenly, on the occasion of their second birthdays, log into Facebook to unfriend each other. In extreme cases, former friends can’t even be left alone without your coming home to find tufts of fur on the floor or having to take one or both to the vet to have wounds treated. If problems between your cats began or got worse between the ages of about two and four, you now know at least one of the likely—and, quite natural—reasons.
The situation is not hopeless, however, no matter what you may have been told. You can help your cats negotiate a peace between themselves. Yes, believe it or not, you can play a major role in the ability of cats to get along with each other—those cats who are meeting each other for the first time, and those cats who were once old pals but now seem estranged or even hostile to each other. It’s better not to leave this to chance, because you may be living with the consequences for many years to come, unless of course you simply give up and keep the cats separate, or get rid of one or more of them. This is such an important subject, because it can have a long-term impact on the quality of life for both you and your cats, that I have devoted the entire next chapter to teaching you how to introduce two (or more) cats to each other for the first time, or reintroduce cats who used to get along but are now behaving like enemies.
* The first recorded breeding program was undertaken, in around A.D. 999 in the Imperial Palace of Japan. The Japanese ultimately tried to control cat matings to such an extent that cats were not permitted outdoors. When mice nearly wiped out the silkworm industry, cats were let back outside.
† In the wolf world, an alpha is basically a good leader of the moving nursery that is the wolf pack, perhaps because he is the parent, the oldest, or has been around the longest and is a good leader—but not because he is the most aggressive. Aggression from the alpha is commonly reserved for intruders from outside the pack.