Is this possible? Can you choose the great feline friend who will be the faithful excellent companion you have always wanted? I think you can but there are many “ifs” involved. This is an issue that is both simple and rather complicated all at once.
I’d like to start by asking whether you are a cat person, a dog person, or a pet person. People with a strong preference for one species know why they feel that way. For these folks it’s pretty straightforward. You relate to that species largely because of who you are. You have clear expectations because you’ve had a connection with the dogs or cats in your life and it’s been felt on both sides of those relationships.
I understand this because I know so many dogs and dog people and so many cats and cat people. But I’m not one of them. Instead I am a pet person. And those of us who really love both cats and dogs need to be the most careful to avoid the big problems of pet parenting.
In my attempts to help you find the cat you want I will also try to help you avoid the cat who could make your life a living hell (or a living heck, if the cat is only moderately evil). So let’s start with expectations i.e. the realistic kind. Dogs are a lot like people and cats are not. Yes, that is a gross generalization with plenty of exceptions, but for you to adequately understand how to find a good cat I will explain who and what cats are in general terms.
Why would you bother to continue reading this? Because, by far, the leading cause
of death in cats and dogs in the United States is euthanasia-due to behavior problems. That’s far ahead of auto injuries, cancer, kidney failure, you name it. And most of this tragic waste of life is preventable if people really understand what they want in a pet and whether the pet they choose can deliver on it.
Cats. They are not like dogs. Each year 25% of pet cats leave their homes-permanently. Only one third of cats are in the same homes for their entire lives. For the average American home, dogs are much more likely to stay put. Most of this is not because the cats were bad but because the cat parent’s choices or management was a bit lacking.
What is a Cat?
Cats, like all of us, start out as a meeting of their parents’ genes (no, not their jeans). But they are different right from the moment of conception. We tell potentially picky puppy purchasers that observing the mother of a litter will help them predict the behavior of the babies. Puppies get about half of their personalities from each parent. Kittens, on the other hand, get the majority of their personalities from their dads. Sorry to say, most of these losers are nowhere to be found when the kids need their diapers changed. No kitten support, no college tuition. Forget insisting on handling mom. She may be quite friendly-a real charmer. Her children, on the other hand, could be lifelong barbarians. Sounds like my family.
But that’s only the beginning. The biggest difference between cats and nearly all other mammalian species is that they are fundamentally asocial. In other words, they are natural loners. But wait, you say, you’ve known lots of cats who have groomed and cared for each other. There are reasons for this that I will explain later. For now understand that choosing a kitten is very different than choosing a puppy, or a human friend, or a romantic partner, or a job. These life choices are based on social needs. Cats don’t really have social needs. When you evaluate a litter of kittens you will learn very different things than if they were puppies. Cats are not just dogs with short ears. Cats are cats.
Socialization of a Socially Asocial Species
I really don’t mean to be obtuse. The mere fact that cats are not a highly socialized species does not mean they don’t have an important process of socialization. The truth is that social animals like humans, dogs, or any species that lives in communities must have this process. It’s essential for our survival. Cats, on the other hand, really don’t need it. They can do fine on their own. So if they don’t have lots of human handling in ample amounts at the appropriate times in early kitten-hood development they look after themselves and do fine. But these cats cannot be effectively tamed and kept as acceptable pets. Therefore, what you are about to learn is how to know if the litter of kittens that you are examining has been socialized for you. If you arrive at the home an aesthetically pleasing litter of dynamite kitties and you learn that they have not been properly acclimatized to humans please do the following: politely feign acute abdominal distress and quickly exit the cathouse.
Kitten socialization facts
During the first 3 weeks of life outside the womb kittens spend their nonsleeping/noneating time imprinting on their mothers. In other words, they learn how to be cats. But between ages 3 and 9 weeks their brains allow them to become accustomed to any species that shares their lives-ANY species. You can mix rats, mice, birds, dogs, humans, or other cats with kittens during this time and they will be seen as friends throughout the lives of those kittens. But if that window of time is missed the result will be a cat who responds in a socially inappropriate way to other creatures. Thus orphan raised kittens will have a hard time with other cats because they did not get socialized to other cats. Kittens raised by feral mothers simply cannot be tamed into being decent pets because they did not get human contact at the right time. On the other hand, kittens who got exposed to non-frightened rodents or dogs have no hard feelings at all for these “natural enemies”.
Now there are cats who like people and those who like to bite and scratch people. If a kitten had a lot of gentle handling by many different humans as a youngster he or she will likely be a relaxed and affectionate pet. Kittens handled roughly are more prone to biting and scratching when they are petted. And just like children kittens go through phases with gradual transitions. As a general rule it’s best to allow kittens to stay with their mothers and littermates until age 5 weeks or older. Kittens adopted younger than this can become aggressive toward other cats or act out with self-mutilation.
If you absorbed all of this you are an expert-at least you know a lot more than the people giving away or selling the kittens. But instead of telling these nice folks all about it and then asking them if they did it right I suggest that you simply pose a few simple questions. When were the kittens born? Who handled them and when? Have the kittens learned to play roughly or gently? What was dad like? (Aside from being an irresponsible lout, that is.) Last, how much were the kittens handled? If they were given a whole bunch of gentle affection every day, you might have made it to the right litter.
Now let’s pick a great kitty. I love cats. I can tell within a few minutes if I have any business evaluating a given litter of kittens. They are either a great bunch or they are just not right. So let’s say the answers to the above questions are good ones and you’re standing there gazing upon a frolicking, cavorting bunch of cuties. Calm down, please. You’ll be so overcome with enthusiasm you’ll miss some important signs.
Sit quietly and observe. This is critical. The babies will tell you nearly everything you need to know if you watch and wait. You must be either alone or in the company of a like-minded, quiet adult. Leave your children and the nervous mother cat and litter owner some other place.
Remember what we said about cats being asocial creatures having stages of social development? If the babies are between 2 and 7 weeks old they are in a social period. If you watch a group of this age, the kitten politics being played out in front of you will allow you may recognize the toughest, baddest kitten. This is the pushy one who’s in charge. You may not want this tough guy (or gal); they may be less affectionate. Is there a runt? We all feel sorry for this underdog (undercat?). But think twice about the little one. If this baby was seriously intimidated by its brethren he/she may be poorly socialized. And please, please remember that you should not feel obligated to adopt the least desirable kitten because maybe no one else will. Having learned the process of kitten selection you are a rare kitten adopter. Another, albeit uneducated, cat lover will take home any that you leave behind.
Are you still with me? Have an enclosure nearby for keeping the kittens who you’ve already evaluated. Quietly pick up a kitten and let the baby sit in your hands. Is that child relaxed or anxious? Anxious, restless kittens are unlikely to relate well in social situations. Now put the kitten on the ground and start to walk away. Does the kitten follow? What happens when you stop? Does the kitten stay relaxed and start to explore his/her surroundings? (A good sign) Clap your hands. Does the kitten panic and bolt? If you want a relaxed, friendly cat you don’t need me to give you the answers.
If you know what to look for you can read these little guys like a book. Just watch for a few minutes.
A kitten with his/her head up and a straight back is relaxed. If the tail is straight out you have a cool cat. You want this.
Straight Rear Legs with a High Rump
If this prospective kitten is standing this way you are looking at a take-charge cat. Do you want a cat in your life who tells you where to go? If so, this could be your new boss. Not my type though.
This does not refer, I hope, to my retirement funds. If the kitten you are observing rolls on its back you have a kitten who believes that he/she may be in a conflict soon. It usually also means that in such a conflict that this cat will fight only if really pushed. He/she would prefer to run away. But this is not a relaxed posture. I would avoid this kitty.
I don’t think you need much help here. This cat is ready to rumble.
Obvious? Actually there are two kinds of purrs but you would need to be an expert on cat-speak to tell them apart. As we all know, many cats and kittens purr when they are content. If you are holding a prospective family member who purrs you would be favorably inclined. But did you know that many kittens purr in a slightly different way when they are anxious? If being held causes the kitten anxiety you’ll want to know it. So how can you tell? Believe it or not a meow is much more reliable than a purr. If the baby meows when you hold him or her you almost certainly have a relaxed kitten.
This could be among the most useful predictors of social success in a young kitten. While nearly all kittens play you’ll learn a lot if you take note of who plays how.
Kittens who play roughly with claws extended are likely to do the same with you at home. Between ages 5 and 10 weeks, being the socialization period, you’ll want a pet who acts, well, social. It’s become clear to behaviorists that timid kittens in this age group are likely to remain aloof throughout their lives. In other words, if he won’t play with his family he won’t play with you either. The bottom line is that if you like the way a kitten interacts with his or her siblings during this phase of development then that baby may have your name on him.
Folks who are big on a particular breed feel strongly. Many pure breed cat fanciers feel such a gut level commitment to their breed that they find it impossible to allow others to have opinions. I’ll provide a few facts.
Those cat breeds that have been popular for a long time have, in some cases, been pretty carefully developed to make good social pets. The best example may be the Siamese. This works because there are so many individuals in the common breeds that the gene pool is big. You can mate personalities that you like and not have to commit incest. On the other hand the less common breeds of cats were, in many cases, imported into this country with only a few individuals-small gene pool. Breeding these closely related cats
to advance the breed has caused a host of physical defects. It has also had the effect of producing more asocial cats. Thus I recommend popular breeds, or best of all, the all American mix. Fortunately the vast majority of cats are the latter.
Nothing But The Best
I hope reading this discourse on the nuts and bolts of kitten behavior has been helpful and not a chore. For many cat lovers the addition of a new kitty is such an affair of the heart that even considering logic and informed choice is tantamount to filing one’s knuckles with a cheese grater.
All of us feline friendly folk are fools for a fuzzy face. But despite the urge to open our hearts to every deserving cat, I advocate using our heads too. Carefully select the greatest companion you can find. Life is short and friendships are precious. Wonderful cats are that way because they are well matched to their human counterparts. To build that relationship into everything you want it to be you must start with a good match. Choose right at the start; then go for the gold.