Observing Cats: Saying Hello

Charlotte Aubrey Woodbury
Bob now has a new sister: Charlotte Aubrey Woodbury or Charlie. She has been a member of our household for about a month.

I did not intend to get a new kitten so soon and wasn't even sure that I could since after summer, the next kitten "season" of the year is mid-fall (about now). However, as mentioned in a previous post, Bob was going stir-crazy without warm-blooded companionship during the hours I am at work, so I decided to give myself a break and see if kittens were available at the Animal Refuge League.

They were: three Mackerel tabbies, of which Charlie is one, one calico, and three orange kittens, who appeared a little too aggressive for my taste.

Using Cesar's advice, I took note of Charlie's temperament and energy before making my final selection. Sure, cuteness is a factor! But temperament rules the house. Of the three Mackerel tabbies, Charlie stood out as being neither too somnolent and passive (I wanted a kitten who would help Bob be brave) nor too wild (one kitten was climbing the cage walls). Charlie was curious, brave, and clever (she would hide under a dish, then pounce on another kitten) with no signs of aggression.

So I brought her home and sequestered her in my bedroom as all manuals and experts suggest: separate the new cat from any other animals for at least 24 hours.

I rarely follow this rule as rigidly as experts advise since I think the smell of a new animal is far more traumatizing than not discovering the origin of the smell. Bob was far more disturbed by the smell of the Animal Refuge League cardboard carrier that the ARL sends cats home in than by Charlie herself.

However, he was sufficiently freaked out by Charlie to greatly increase my estimate of how long their introduction would take.

Aurora's introduction to Max took less than a day. She was nearly 2 years when I got him, a kitten of approximately 7 weeks. It never occurred to me to separate them. (I didn't know any better. In addition, I  have strong feelings about the craziness of owners who cater to their pets' frail psyches, insisting on keeping said pets in separate parts of the house, etc. This is one tribe, darn it all, not two or three!) Max climbed into Aurora's space and was getting groomed by her within a hour.

She took longer to warm up to Bob although she was immediately curious. They were intermingling in the same space within five hours although I kept them separated at night and when I wasn't home for about three days.

Bob: What have you done?!
Bob, on the other hand, was the opposite of curious. For two days, I wondered if I had made a huge miscalculation. He behaved like a creature constantly on the verge of being tortured What is that thing? Why does it move? Where is it going now? What have you done!?

However, within those same two days, I concluded that Bob's lack of ease needed to be nipped in the bud. The experts agree--kittens of the right temperament can easily be encouraged to socialize. Older cats have a harder time, especially if opportunities for socialization are removed. And lack of sociability isn't a good trait to encourage in any pet. (This is an irony that Cesar runs into quite often with dogs: fearful owners will remove their dog from socializing with other dogs, which only increases the dog's sense of isolation, which in turn increases its aggression. The very thing the owners fear is the very thing the dog needs. Human kindergarteners aren't too terribly different. Sure, little Suzy might bite little Joey, but removing her from the group isn't going to help anybody.)

Cats may not be sociable in the same way as dogs, especially with humans, but they do have associations. Feral cats are remarkably socially adept within their own communities (just not with humans). 

On the other hand, although I was determined to "normalize" Bob, I came to realize that I couldn't push him. My attempts to make him be "nice" (Don't hiss!) backfired since I was cutting off a normal reaction. The most I could do was go and get him when he'd been under the bed too long. This is where the family hangs out, okay mister? 

Tough love.

Four days into this emotional battlefield, Bob jumped off a settee from which he had been eying Charlie and walked up to her. I held my breath and forced myself not to interfere. Bob reached out and, claws sheathed, batted at Charlie's face. She reacted blankly, then ran off and pounced on a toy.

Although Bob is 4 (or 33), his behavior towards Charlie was not all that different from a large 6-year-old walking up to a toddler, patting her on the head, then getting confused because she didn't pat him back. This is a game, stupid! Don't you get it? 

I had been worried that Bob's lack of maternal instinct would give him nothing to offer Charlie. What I discovered--and my vet confirmed--is that male cats take upon themselves the "coach" role: they monitor wrestling matches and correct extreme behavior. They discipline biting tendencies (little kittens love to bite) and, alongside female cats, illustrate how to hunt. One major factor in Bob's change of attitude occurred when I began to play chase-the-ribbon with Charlie in his presence. He watched her closely. Then he chased the ribbon. Much to my surprise (and pleasure), Charlie began to imitate him (in general, she gets too excited to utilize his "stalking" techniques, but she does try). Up until that point, I'm not sure Bob realized that Charlie WAS a cat.

Since that first week, socialization has proceeded with few set-backs. Charlie and Bob play at least twice a day now. And sometimes they even sleep on the same bed together! (I haven't yet seen them cuddle--at least not around me.)

Solving the food crisis took longer.

As mentioned above, I am not an advocate of separating members of a household. I also agree with Cesar that meal time is a great way to increase socialization (in fact, I think this is mammal behavior, not simply pet behavior; all mammals, including humans, treat eating together as the ultimate bonding ritual).

However, I was concerned that Bob's finickiness about eating near Charlie would aggravate his nervous bladder. Bob's nervous bladder required a costly intervention when he was 1 years old. Luckily, none of his issues in this area have recurred. Still, me and my bank account suffered some qualms when Bob refused to sup near Charlie the first two days.

Bob's subsequent attitude regarding meal times can best be summed up in the line from Frasier: "Dogs are weird."

Or, in this case, "Cats are weird."

I calculated that the best solution would be to have Bob eat on a higher surface, one that Charlie currently shows no interest in negotiating.

He wouldn't.

So I caved and tried the eat-in-another-room scenario.

He wouldn't do that either.

Ultimately, not being able to SEE Charlie while he ate caused Bob far more frustration than seeing her while trying to eat.

They now eat in the kitchen at the same time, so the problem is more or less solved. Yet Bob's behavior continues to mystify me, especially since he won't fight for his food. He won't even hiss at Charlie over it.

Aurora and Bob waiting to be served. The hat and horn
were added to the image. No cat is THAT tolerant!
But then, Aurora wouldn't either. If Max or Bob wanted her food, fine, let them have it. I put her reaction down to maternal temperament. But Bob, who has no maternal instincts, is exactly the same. This may be because Bob is a less dominant personality than Charlie. Or it could be some "survival of the progeny" instinct that gives kittens precedence at the trough. If Bob becomes less forgiving when Charlie hits puberty, I will make  note of it.

My hope, of course, is to train Charlie to eat from her plate and no one else's. I monitor meal times (due to Bob's medical issues, I instituted specific meal times rather than leaving out food all the time; I far prefer the specific meal times!). Over a five-minute period, I will remove Charlie from Bob's plate six or seven times. She changes bowls even when hers is still full--his is SO much more interesting! When she finishes eating from her bowl, I let her play with the kitchen light string until Bob is done.

Kittens are trainable! But as experts point out, they react to the type of training that other cats would give them. There are kittens who can be trained to do dog and humans things like retrieve balls, etc. But in general, "This is NOT your food" and "NO BITE" are the most likely rules to prove successful.

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