Cats can be social animals

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Many people believe that unlike dogs, cats are perfectly happy to be independent, live-alone-and-like-it critters, possibly even anti-social.

Well guess what. Scientists now call this a myth. Evidence of cat sociability from various researchers was recently published in Science News. The false belief in anti-social cats angers Sharon L. Crowell-Davis, a behavioral veterinarian at the University of Georgia. She says people become anti-cat because they think the creatures are too aloof and stand-offish, with no warmth to reward a loving human.

She says by simple definition, all animals that can form stable relationships within their own species are social animals. She reports that cats have been proven to form stable relationships on farms and dockyards, and even among the stones of Rome’s ancient Forum.

David MacDonald of Oxford University did research to update information on cats. He and his associates studied three colonies of free-living cats, the kind that hang out in farmers’ barns. They took fifty-nine thousand observations of several dozen cats, to determine whether those who settled down within five meters of each other were just relaxing at random, or choosing other cats with whom they wanted to associate.

The upshot? Here’s a quote: “Cats choose to sit together, and each individual favors the company of some over others.”

Among adult females, they found cats liked their relatives best. A cat was four times as likely to sit near a female relative as to sit with a female from another lineage. Once the researchers watched a pregnant female wiggle into a crack between straw bales where her sister was already raising three kittens. When the pregnant female was ready to give birth, her sister assisted, licked her, licked the newborns clean, and even nursed them.

After that, the sisters raised their kittens together, nursing whatever kitten seemed hungriest no matter which one it be-longed to, and joining forces to keep off intruders. When re-searchers looked further to see whether this was uncommon behavior, they found it was not – there was communal raising of kittens in other colonies they examined.

Another student thought maybe cats would associate closely only with another cat of the same gender, but that also was proven false. Females were as likely to associate with a male as with another female. The student found a house where twenty cats lived, and spent sixteen weekends watching them. He said cats clearly chose the cats they preferred to be with, male or female.

How about others in the cat family? Lions of course associate closely in prides, usually one male with a group of females. It’s been noted that even among cheetahs, known as loners, brothers sometimes stick together and hunt together.

In a study of how cats develop social skills, students found that kittens learn to socialize in the period from two weeks to two months after birth. Those behaviors stick. Kittens raised with both other kittens and some rats, never killed rats of the same strain they grew up with, though they still preferred associating with kittens.

In a study of house cats as hunters, a researcher kept track of the number of kills the animals brought home. Some of the study cats brought home at least one kill a week; some turned up with only about ten a year. Their kills included mice, black rats and other small mammals, but also frogs, reptiles, goldfish, and birds of forty-seven different species. Belled cats caught just as many birds and other creatures as un-belled cats. While we’re on the subject, scientists regularly remind people that even well-fed cats are bird-killers; they recommend all cats should be strictly house cats.

Some students of cat behavior claim that cats have personalities. We had cats when our children were young, and I’d agree. Some are shy, some are bold, some are high-spirited, some are couch potatoes, but I’m sure no cat owner would claim that all cats are cut from the same pattern.

This is Ruth Page, talking with you about one of nature’s creatures that may be misunderstood as a determined loner; cats are social animals.

–Ruth Page is a writer, former editor of a weekly newspaper and a national gardening magazine.

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