Cats have friends too

TailWrap

Many people think of cats as solitary creatures. But, did you know that free-roaming colony cats have complex social relationships?

Cats engage in a variety of behaviors with one another such as allorubbing (one cat rubs against another), allogrooming (one cat grooms another), cuffing (one cat smacks another with its paw), sniffing, playing, laying together… and the list goes on! (1) Cats will engage in these behaviors with and spend more time near (in close proximity to) specific cats, known as “preferred associates.” (2) Preferred associates are basically friends- although the scientific community would avoid this word as it anthropomorphizes (or gives human attributes) the relationship. But, synonyms for friends include “associate”, “playmate”, “familiar” and “companion”, all of which would describe the relationship between preferred associates.

These cats share a social bond akin to friendship in which they frequently play with one another. I have often observed farm cats chasing one another, wrestling each other to the ground and even swatting rocks at one another. They also lay with each other, groom each other, share their scents with each other (allorubbing), share tail wraps (as seen in the photo between Spirit and Sugar) and roll in front of each other- exposing their bellies. This is not to say, as with most friendships, there is not the occasional fight where one cat cuffs another- as I have so often seen when one cat wants to take back a favorite sunny sleeping spot. But in reality we know little about what factors influence cat social relationships and we know even less about how cats form social relationships with humans. Yet, one study did find that cats form attachment bonds with their owners, similar to those between infants and their mothers and between dogs and their owners. (3) Only further research can shed more light into the complex world of inter-species relationships.

(1) Crowell-Davis, S. L., Curtis, T. M., & Knowles, R. J. (2004). Social organization in the cat: a modern understanding. Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery6(1), 19–28. doi:10.1016/j.jfms.2003.09.013
(2) Curtis, T. M., Knowles, R. J., & Crowell-Davis, S. L. (2003). Influence of familiarity and relatedness on proximity and allogrooming in domestic cats (Felis catus)American Journal of Veterinary Research64(9), 1151–1154. doi:10.2460/ajvr.2003.64.1151
(2) Wolfe, R.C. (2001). The social organization of the free ranging domestic cat (Felis catus). PhD dissertation, University of Georgia: Athens, GA.
(2) Shreve, K.R. (2014). The influence of food distribution and relatedness on the social behaviours and proximities of free-roaming cats (Felis silvestris catus). M.En. thesis, Miami University: Oxford, OH.
(3) Edwards, C., Heiblum, M., Tejeda, A., & Galindo, F. (2007). Experimental evaluation of attachment behaviors in owned cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research2(4), 119–125. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2007.06.004

Do cats understand human emotions? Yes!

Here I talk about an extremely interesting study that examined the ability of cats to detect human emotion. The study is entitled “Social referencing and cat–human communication” and was published in Animal Cognition in 2015.

Merola and colleagues examined if cats have the ability to use social referencing– or the ability of an individual to evaluate another individuals’s emotional state and change their behavior in response. This behavior has been seen in many social species including humans, non-human primates, and dogs. This ability is especially helpful in unfamiliar situations where the animal may not know how to react.

For example, lets saIMG_20141029_171235y a cat has never encountered a dog before (an unfamiliar or strange event). The cat may not know how to react- should the cat be terrified and run for it’s life? Or, should it approach the dog and interact? If cats have the ability to socially reference their owner, they could observe how their owner reacts to the dog and adjust their behavior in response to their owner’s behavior. If the owner is happy to see the dog and interacts with it freely (positive emotional state), the cat may do so as well. Or, if the owner appears frightened of the dog and retreats (negative emotional state), the cat may do so as well.

So, Merola and colleagues presented the cats with two states, one in which their owner acted afraid of an unfamiliar object and the other in which their owner acted positively toward the unfamiliar object, which in this study was a fan turned on with streamers attached (making an unfamiliar noise as well). Researchers then observed the cat’s behavior in the different owner emotion conditions.

The researchers found the majority (79%) of cats exhibited referential looking, a measure of the social referencing ability in which the cat shifts their gaze from the unfamiliar object back to the owner to pick up social information. Additionally, cats “also to some extent changed their behaviour in line with the emotional message given by the owner.

This is an interesting find, especially since we know so little about cat-human communication. This will not surprise many cat owners, who will tell you their cat knows when human members of the family are upset and will actively comfort them, as has happened so often to me!

Constant and Faithful Companion

Great post by my parents on the joys and sorrows of the cat-human relationship.

Sixty-Sixty

Sasha Sasha

Twenty-six years ago this month a sixteen-year-old gray tabby cat named Sasha lay down on our bedspread and, content with the companionship of her lifelong friend and confidante Joan, closed her eyes and purred, consented to death, and left us behind.

We’ve owned cats most of our married life. But one cat has to be the first cat. The kitten you have when you are young, live in rented apartments, and are perpetually short of money. One day in 1973, during our second year of marriage, Greg asked Joan out of the blue, “Do you want a kitten?” Prone (sometimes) to quick decisions, Greg had decided the young household of two needed a feline companion. Joan, although with no previous experience of cats, was, as per usual, game to try this idea out. So, off we went, prospective cat-owners, to inspect a litter of rambunctious kittens whose newly-arrived presence…

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Master’s degree awarded!

Hello all! It has been awhile since my last post. Me and my girls have been busy moving across the United States! I have begun a new doctoral program in Animal Behavior specializing in cat behavior, cat cognition and the human-cat relationship.

If anyone is interested in checking out my Master’s thesis it can be found at this link: The Influence of Food Distribution and Relatedness on the Social Behaviours and Proximities of Free-Roaming Cats

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Macy and Cecilia prepare for their cross-country trip!