The Mind of Your Cat: 01/02

Question: I live with a three-year-old cat that recently gave birth to a litter of kittens. The kittens are darling, and just turned 12 weeks old. I would love to keep one or two of them. However, the happiness of the mother cat is my main concern. Will she be happy for the company, or will she resent sharing her home? By the way, I do plan to have the mama cat spayed this month.

Answer: For many years, people considered cats to be solitary creatures. Cats seen roaming the neighborhood were most often alone. Visiting cats seemed to appear only to fight and then return to their own turf.

We know better now, dont we? Cats are certainly social. Some cats, like some human companions, are less social than others, spending much if not all of their time alone. Other cats are frequently in the company of others. Yet even the most social cat seems to prefer individuals with whom they associate most closely. And even a very social cat may have a cat with which she clearly does not wish to associate. She may ignore, avoid, or aggress toward that individual.

Predicting future behavior
There are many factors to consider in your particular cat family. Lets start with the kittens. It is quite difficult to predict future temperament based on the behavior of a young kitten. To some extent, a very fearful kitten is likely to maintain a high level of fear in certain situations; a very aggressive kitten is likely to continue to exhibit aggression in certain contexts.

But what about the average kitten that has the playful, happy-go-lucky personality? This may be the one that is most difficult to predict because its future behavior will certainly be affected by its early social experiences.

If this playful kitten is paired with a timid adult cat, one that is inclined to flee when chased, then the kitten will be reinforced for chasing. Chasing will increase; mama cat will spend more time running away. The outcome may be the development of aggressive behavior in one or both cats. Of course, if you were to keep two kittens, they might direct their playful behavior toward one another and leave mama alone. However, a three-cat household can become complicated – mother cats do not always prefer to associate with their mature kittens, and siblings do not necessarily become good friends.

What if your kitten is timid? When an aggressive adult repeatedly chases a timid kitten, even if the aggression is play-based, then, as described in the previous example, aggression may develop in one or both cats. Again, the fleeing kitten would reinforce the chasing behavior of the adult.

Mamas attitude
Since we cannot predict the future behavior of your kittens, perhaps we should focus on the mamas personality and behavior. How does she relate to the kittens at the present time? Does she ignore them? For example, does she generally walk past a kitten with barely a glance and continue to sit in her favorite places even when there is a kitten nearby? Does she continue to play with you and maintain her usual daily routine? If this is the case, then as the kittens mature and become less boisterous in their play, mama may continue to ignore them. Better yet, she may even interact with them. In either case, she would, so to speak, be none the worse for the wear.

On the other hand, instead of simply minding her space, perhaps mama cat actively avoids the kittens. You might have observed her hesitating to walk past a kitten, perhaps selecting another sofa if there is a kitten in the area. Or, perhaps she has begun to spend her time in an isolated room rather than interacting with you when the kittens are up and about. If you have observed this pattern, then you might anticipate a less than ideal relationship among the cats. Unfortunately, a consequence of mamas avoiding the kittens could be her avoiding the litter box. In an extreme case, this could result in her selecting alternative, unacceptable areas in which to eliminate.

Finally, instead of ignoring or avoiding kittens, mama cat might behave aggressively toward them. In certain circumstances, a more mature kitten might be construed as a social threat. Aggressive behavior directed toward the kittens could be traumatic for all concerned, particularly if the kittens were attacked while attempting to access their food or litter boxes.

Plan for harmony, prepare for discord
Potential problems aside, it is also possible for three cats to live in harmony. What are some signs that we might anticipate such harmony? The chances of peace may be greater if mama is a calm cat and is not inclined to run away from busy kittens.

It would also be encouraging if mama cat routinely engaged in grooming, rubbing, and playing with the kittens. Sharing resting-places may also be a sign of compatibility, though as adults cats often engage in a type of time-sharing.

In conclusion, it is very difficult to predict the future relationship of social animals such as cats. It might be prudent to have a back-up plan. That is, prepare for the worst-case scenario by forming a strategy to enforce time-sharing should that be required.

Of course, the outcome may be wonderful, with one or two new additions to your home that appear to enjoy playing, grooming, and keeping you and one another warm on a chilly afternoon.