Last week an Idaho veterinarian posted a column in her local paper with the headline, "Cats are intrinsically drawn to one another!" Yes, that is the headline — exclamation point and all. Cats are social animals. They like being together.
The cat-loving world responded with a collective, "Well, duh!"
But regardless of how obvious it is, I do give that vet a lot of credit for trying to bust a myth that’s been hurting our feline friends for many years.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve heard the old saw that cats are solitary creatures, quite content to never encounter another member of their species except when it’s time to mate or raise kittens. I even bought that line myself, despite the fact that I saw my family’s cats enjoying one another’s company almost every day. I figured that maybe my cats were different from "regular cats."
I started realizing that cats may not in fact be as solitary as I thought when I borrowed one of my family’s cats to keep me company in a new apartment. Shaughnessy was used to being in a house full of people, dogs and other cats, but I figured she’d be fine. After all, cats prefer to be alone, right?
Not so much.
After a few months I started to notice that Shaughnessy was spending lots of time staring forlornly out at the yard. Her appetite decreased, and eventually she stopped seeking even the second-rate solace of my company. I explained to my mother what was going on and said that Shaughnessy needed to go back home before she got sick.
A few years and dozens of cat books later, I was still reading about how cats are loners. But now I was actively questioning the truth of this statement. I kept seeing cats that enjoyed one another’s company, and the evidence for cats as social creatures began to mount.
Then I read about a study done on social behavior in feral cat colonies. "Cat Behaviour: Social Organization, Communication and Development," a study by Sharon L. Crowell-Davis that appeared in the 2005 book The Welfare of Cats, showed that feral cats form "complex matrilineal societies called colonies" and that female cats share kitten raising, grooming, and guarding of nests. Male and female cats within colonies can have "preferred conspecifics with which they engage in various affiliative behaviors." In English, that means cats have friends and they like to do things together.
If you have more than one cat, you’ve seen that they tend to have buddies they prefer to hang out with. If you’ve ever set foot in a cage-free cat shelter, you couldn’t possibly continue to believe that cats are solitary creatures.
It’s been eight years since Crowell-Davis published her findings, but nothing seems to have changed.
I can understand the general public’s continuing conception of cats as loners, but what really grinds my gears is when people who are known as (or who fancy themselves to be) cat experts spread this same myth.
Right now I’m reading a cat behavior book with an introduction that goes something like, "Your cat is aloof and mysterious and unsocial, and she doesn’t care what you think of her behavior."
Shame on you, cat expert who shall remain anonymous! You, of all people, ought to know better.
How are we going to convince the world of the truth when even people who are viewed as cat behavior professionals are perpetuating the antisocial cat myth?
What do you think? Is it time to bust the myth? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their cat advice column, Paws and Effect, since 2003. JaneA dreams of making a great living out of her love for cats.
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