Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Learning about cats

If you want to learn about cats, probably the fastest and most complete method is to work with many of them in a relatively short time - such as at a humane shelter.

I have been rescuing, sheltering and caring for hundreds of cats for almost 4 years. By now I've handled approximately 1,000 cats.

Since it's a sheltering environment, conditions are different from a home life - which in many cases is an improvement. Shelter life is generally crowded and extremely stressful, as cats normally do not live in large groups. But, as mentioned, it may be better than the environment they were in before. Cats just in off the street, for example, are usually used to being hungry and will therefore be used to fighting for every morsel of food. It can take months for them to become used to the idea that competing for food is no longer necessary.

Obviously, cats can be conditioned to live in groups, as many farms keep groups of cats around for mousing purposes. But those groups usually are generated right there, as progeny from an "original couple," or several mating pairs produce their own offspring over time. Thus, cats in larger groups, called clowders or colonies, are related to each other, have grown up together, have shared parenting tasks, and are used to each other.

Shelter groups, by contrast, consist primarily of unrelated animals that seldom even know each other. There is no familiarity, and thus little if any community spirit. The pecking order has not been established, as it would be in a pre-existing communal setting. This results in a high level of stress for the cats, who are motivated by instinct to create such an order. There must be a "top cat," and there must be subordinate members who respect him, although it occasionally can be a female.

For the good of the shelter situation, or even a multi-cat household, the top cat had better be you. One or more staff must earn the respect of the cats in order to minimize the stress, as well as the urges to fight as a means of jockeying for position.

Cats are social to a point, but much less so than dogs. When people are involved, it is very important for the humans to maintain a setting in which the cats can feel secure.

Of course, the typical "pound" type of shelter, where animals aren't given much time before they are destroyed, will never reach a point where the social order and well being of the cats are considered important. Moreover, pound pets are usually caged, eliminating any concerns for social dynamics.

The group assimilation efforts apply more to the "no-kill" facilities, where the aim is to rehabilitate those that need help and to find them new homes. But cats can live in such a facility for years before a home is found. It then becomes extremely important for the cats to carve out their own niches within the group, to preserve harmony, if possible.

Cats thus socialized often make the transition to a new home with less apparent trauma than those imprisoned in traditional “kennel” environments.