Ethology and veterinary practice: Feline maternal-human mismatches
Friday, May 05, 2017
Last month's brief opened with a scenario common to many practitioners: the client who rescues a kitten naively thinking that bottle-feeding will fulfill the kitten's maternal needs. Then, I looked at the opposite end of the feline nursing spectrum: the range of behavioral benefits conferred by a prolonged nursing strategy on kittens, queens and a population of free-roaming cats drawn together by a reliable food supply.
In this month’s brief, I want to consider some of the behavioral problems cats with these opposite early experiences may experience in a pet cat environment, beginning with those whose moms were missing in action.
Bottle-fed kittens without the benefit of an adult cat miss lessons that can negatively affect their behavior.
Like all animals, kittens learn by modeling their behavior on that of the queen. If she stays relaxed, they remain relaxed, too. But in the process of doing this, the queen also communicates that none of the ocean of stimuli currently bombarding that environment poses any threat to her young.
There's no way a human can teach a kitten that because feline perception is so different from ours. Consequently, solo kittens lacking the benefit of a feline adult to model the proper response must figure this out by trial-and-error. And this takes time.
During this period, these animals may succumb to stimulus overload. Because their thresholds are lower, they reach them sooner and may respond dramatically when they do. Their pupils dilate, they puff up in fear and unsheathe their claws. Many then make a straight-line fear-flee response, giving any unsuspecting people in their paths the impression that these animals are psychotic and determined to attack.
The best response at such times involves dropping a towel or blanket over the cat, putting the animal in a carrier, and placing both in a quiet, dark room to recover.
Queens or any adult cats with good parental skills also teach their young what I dubbed the "lesson of degree." People often describe kittens lacking such parental education as "too." They run too fast, bite and dig in with their claws too hard, and otherwise react to changes in their environments excessively.
Attempts to punish these animals are apt to throw them into an aggressive defensive or offensive response, and reinforce instead of extinguish the behavior.
Because animals also nurse for comfort, animals deprived of quality maternal care of sufficient duration may suck on other objects or even themselves. Stuffed toys and blankets are common targets, but some kittens also will suck on a willing dog or person in the household. (Human and canine earlobes/pinnae seem to be a preferred comfort source.)
Initially, these displays often are accompanied by kneading and purring. In my experience and barring human reaction to the behavior, most cats outgrow the behavior by 12-18 months of age. In general, the more complex the animal's environment, the longer it takes.
I also find it helpful to give these kittens an acceptable object to nurse at any time. That way they can dissipate any stress when it occurs instead of waiting for some inaccessible object (or person or dog) to arrive. If the stressful conditions persist into adolescence and maturity, some older kittens may segue into masturbation.
A third group displays infantile suckling and sexual behaviors simultaneously. For example, a male cat may hold his owner's forearm with his front paws and suck and drool on her hand while treading with his back legs and thrusting with his erect penis. Although some owners may find the behavior offensive and even pathological, it does serve a legitimate stress-relieving purpose.
These maternal-sexual examples also demonstrate another characteristic of cats who lack sufficient quality maternal care long enough: They may display a weaker grasp of normal species behavior. They seem aware of the physical process, but not an understanding of the purpose that normally gives the process its meaning.
A common example of this is elimination behavior. When the urge to eliminate hits them, they may scratch or dig at the floor, urinate or defecate on the top of the litter, then scratch or dig at the wall. The dig-eliminate-cover sequence remains, but it has no logical meaning. This example also demonstrates how once-meaningful behavioral sequences may evolve into ritualistic ones over time.
Now let's add another wrinkle and consider what happens when an adult male bottle-fed cat and the woman who raised him move into a new home with an adult female transport from long-established free-roaming roots and her male owner.
Both cats previously had casual encounters with other cats, and both assumed a semi-solitary orientation at those times. Aside from some vocalizing, both were willing to tolerate the other cat but had no desire to be friends. However, the two cats had never met each other.
Prior to the move, the owners did everything right. They regularly spent time in each other's homes and had close relationships with each other's cat when they did. The cats displayed no negative reactions to each other's scent. The bottle-fed cat adored the male owner of the free-roaming female, and the female cat cuddled with the woman.
All seemed to bode well for the smooth merger of the two households.
What went wrong presumably goes back to the bottle-fed cat's inability to make mental connections that cats with longer maternal care do automatically. (That he was such a cat was suggested by his use of a combination of suckling and masturbation when stressed.)
It began when the female cat growled and hissed at him, as expected. However, instead of doing likewise, the bottle-fed cat froze then slowly walked away. When the female cat chased him, he hid, also not unexpected.
However, when the man followed the bottle-fed cat, the cat became aggressive toward the formerly adored man. Not surprisingly, this upset both owners tremendously. They separated the cats, but found the male cat's aggression toward the man the far more serious problem.
In this situation, it appears that the bottle-fed cat didn't make the connection between the female cat's scent on the man with that of an actual cat. Apparently, he assumed it was part of the man's own scent. Once he made the connection, it frightened him, and he wanted no part of either one of them.
The situation was further exacerbated by the owners' distress. Fortunately, giving the male cat free access to some of the man's unlaundered clothing and then the man himself to explore in his own way and time enabled the cat to figure things out to his satisfaction.
Frustrating though these cases may be for animals and owners alike, they do remind us of the relationship between animal health, behavior and the bond.
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