Question: I wonder if you could inform me as to how it is that a cat can tell whether he or she should jump into your lap if you are thinly clad. I have noticed that my Abyssinian will never jump onto my lap if my legs are bare. Also, along the lines of sensitivity, I often wondered how cats know enough to pull in their claws so efficiently when encountering people. When my cat jumps from the floor onto my shoulders, he always keeps his claws nicely holstered lest he scratch me.
Answer: Cats are wonderfully sensitive to our own sensitivities, arent they? Well, at least many cats are. Some cats are described by their families as just not able to get it. Why the difference among cats, and how do some cats manage to be so perceptive?
Quelling overenthusiastic approaches
To discuss the differences among cats is to discuss the influence of genes, the environment, and the interaction of the two. A cats environment, particularly his early environment, offers many opportunities for learning appropriate behavior. The genetics of the individual cat determines the cats ability to learn from his experiences and to pay attention to the environmental cues that are relevant to learning.
Cats are not born with the ability to distinguish between a bare leg and one covered with heavy denim jeans any more than they are born with perfectly honed suckling skills. However, imagine a maturing kitten attempting to suckle by grasping the queen with extended claws. Mama cat is not likely to submit quietly to this painful manipulation. At the very least, she may simply walk away, leaving her kitten temporarily hungry. If the kitten does not learn from this negative punishment tactic, the mother is likely to use a more assertive technique. For instance, she may vocalize to indicate her displeasure, or she might actively push the kitten away. A normal, attentive kitten will soon realize that overly enthusiastic approaches are not at all rewarding and may even result in frightening or uncomfortable consequences.
Another opportunity for learning comes when kittens play with their siblings. Even when engaging in rough and tumble play, kittens take care not to injure one another. The kitten that insists on leaping with extended claws will soon find himself with no playmates. When kittens are reared as orphans, with no playmates as guides, special handling techniques may be needed to help them learn to inhibit the use of their claws and teeth during play with people.
Teach gentle play
When we humans introduce ourselves to our kittens, we introduce our own rules for interactions such as play. Dedicated breeders handle young kittens frequently. Using techniques similar to those used by the queen (mother), breeders help their kittens learn that only gentle play with people will be accepted. A breeder might end a play session if the exuberant kitten bites or leaps with extended claws. If withdrawal of play is not effective, a startling sound might be used to interrupt the kittens unacceptable behavior.
Some people insist that they have made no deliberate attempts to teach their cats to be gentle. How can that be? Simply put, most cats are exquisitely sensitive to the body language of people. Cats recognize subtle gestures and postural shifts that we ourselves may not even realize we have exhibited.
Imagine you are sitting barelegged in your chair as you watch your kitten approach. You might hold your breath for a moment, or tense your muscles, in anticipation of a potentially painful pounce. Your cat would recognize that tension and slow his own motion as he attempts to determine the relevance of your behavior. Just as he makes the decision to move ahead a little more slowly, you in turn might relax, believing that the danger of a painful leap has passed. Perhaps you might reach down to stroke your cat or gently lift him onto your lap. He would therefore be immediately rewarded for his behavior of pausing and approaching carefully rather than leaping.
The coordinated cat that can jump onto your shoulder – without needing to grasp – probably learned his stunt in a similar manner. He might have first learned that when he attempted the easy leap into your (clothed) lap with claws extended, you flinched or cried ouch. He would have discovered the degree of inhibition required to gain access to your lap without causing the unpleasant tension or cry, and that level of inhibition would have been extended to taller leaps.
As mentioned earlier, a cats ability to notice a persons responses to his behavior, that is, to identify and respond appropriately to relevant cues, most likely has a substantial basis in genetics. Lets use your cats skillful jumping as an example. Since you do not recall having taught your cat how to be sensitive, then it is likely that your cats genetic make up has enabled him to attend to subtle cues – in this case, your body language. A less attentive cat might have leapt onto your shoulder multiple times, disregarding not only your tension but also paying no mind to your shouting in response to the pain he has inflicted on you.
Also likely determined by genes is the degree of fear or anxiety exhibited by an individual cat. An extremely fearful animal cannot learn at a normal pace. Thus, a fearful cat may continue to jump onto a persons shoulder with claws extended, for with his claws extended he is prepared for a rapid flight should the need arise.
You are fortunate to share your life with a sensitive cat. If you should ever find yourself living with a cat that just doesnt get it, dont despair: Behavior modification techniques are available to help less sensitive cats learn to be a bit more careful.