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How kittens interact with humans

For anyone who has a cat it is clear that every cat has its own very distinct personality. Although there is some cat behaviour which is standard for the species, cats are as individual as their humans. One of the many intriguing things about cats is that, although they are generally by nature solitary animals, domestic cats co-habit with humans amicably and generally form a definite bond with them. Humans and their cats are sometimes said to be conspecifics. This is a term which can mean either two members of the same species, or members of two different species which like to hang around together. Though cats are famously curious, it's human investigators that have been making the running in investigating the human-cat relationship. There is now quite a large body of research on the subject. Most studies have concentrated on the effects of early handling of kittens by humans, and how this affects the sociability of cats in their later life. From the results, it is very apparent that early interaction with humans is very important for a close human-cat relationship.

During a kitten's early development, there is a 'sensitive period' when the basic patterns of a cat's behaviour are formed. In a kitten the sensitive period is between the second and the seventh week of its life. This was discovered through experiments which used different handling regimes. For example, in one experiment, kittens were split into four groups. All the kittens in each group were handled by humans for the same time each day and for 4 weeks in all. So the first group of kittens interacted with humans from week 1 after birth to week 5, the second from week 2 to week 6, the third from week 3 to week 7 and the final group from week 4 to week eight. The cats were then tested to see how they responded to humans.

The tests were things like how long it would take a kitten to approach a human after entering a room, or how long a kitten would sit on a handler's lap before jumping off. Added together the results showed that the kittens which had most to do with humans between 2 weeks and 7 weeks were the most socially adapted. Groups two and three were friendliest, whereas groups one and four were significantly less so. This shows that early interaction both with humans and other cats is important for a kitten that is going to live with either in later life. This is perfectly clear from observing cats that have not had any social interaction with either humans or other cats during their first eight weeks. These kittens generally turned out to be very fearful, and timid or aggressive towards other cats and humans which came near them.

But is the timing of handling the only factor? The answer is emphatically no. As we mentioned earlier, cats are individuals. Even among kittens from the same litter some are more active, others more laid-back, and others more timid. Behavioral testing of 'active' cats is difficult because they are curious, and more interested in exploring their environment than socializing with scientists. Timid cats are easier. To test how naturally timid cats behave with humans, kittens were divided into two groups. The first group consisted of what handlers would regard as average kittens, and the others were naturally timid. Both groups of cats were handled for the same period of time. As might be expected, timid cats responded less well. So for example, an average kitten would start approaching her handler within 3 seconds of entering a room, the timid cat would take about 29 seconds. Timid cats were less happy sitting on a human's lap and would stay there less than half an average cat's time. In short, you get introvert or extrovert cats, just as you do with humans. But even timid kittens can get used to people. There is a clear connection between the amount of social contact a kitten has and its later character, no matter how timid it started off as being. The longer kittens are handled every day, the better adjusted they become in their later life. For example a study was made of kittens which were re-homed with families at the early age of 4 weeks. This happened for a number of reasons (for example the kitten was rejected by the mother, the mother died etc). These cats received the same behavioral tests as the kittens described above.

The kittens brought up at home approached 'their' family members readily and would happily climb on their laps, purr and fall asleep. These kittens been continuously surrounded by humans, fed by humans, played with humans and had in fact enjoyed maximum handling and playing time, which made them completely at ease with humans. However, despite this example, septing a kitten from her mother earlier than 8 weeks is a very bad idea which can lead to abnormal development in other areas. In any case, a good breeder understands the need for kittens to be socialized and will handle all kittens regularly while keeping them with their mother.

Most families with cats will agree that, of all family members, cats respond most readily to the person who feeds them. This is sometimes called 'cupboard love'; but that does not tell the full story. Almost every feline behavioral response has been tested by an animal psychologist somewhere, and feeding is not an exception. One study tested how feeding influences the relationship between feeder and cat. Two people took part in this experiment. One person would enter and put the food down whilst the other person would enter and stand in the room but would not feed the kittens. The person feeding the kittens simply put the food down without trying to make any contact with the kittens. Then the psychologists tested how the cats responded to these two people. At first the kittens were more friendly to the person who fed them, but as time went on the response became less friendly, and after a while the kittens paid little attention to either person. This shows clearly that feeding is seen by the cat as sign of friendly behaviour but if not accompanied by stroking, cuddling, playing and other acts which cement the human-cat relationship, the human will eventually be regarded as a sort of walking tin-opener.


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