Thursday 5 June 2014

The Seemingly Irrational Social Behaviour of the Domestic Cat

The Seemingly Irrational Social Behaviour of the Domestic Cat

Pinto left and Twain (a brown tabby). Photo: Dr Fox.
This is quite an interesting story.  Michael J Fox is a well-known veterinarian.  With his wife he adopted one feral cat and shortly thereafter a wandering stray cat.  He quite naturally thought they wouldn't get on initially and so he kept them apart. However, the second cat, who they called Pinto, got through the barrier that they had erected and met up with the feral cat who they called Twain.

The two got on famously.  They rapidly became very close friends; no introductions needed. It was instant friendship.

Then, sometime later Twain did a runner.  He escaped from the home.  This happened because Dr Fox was trying to habituate Twain to accept a harness because he wanted to take Twain outside onto the deck attached to the house. Twain didn't like the idea and disappeared.

Pinto became very distraught and upset.  He missed his friend desperately.  Then something surprising happened. During the gradual recovery of Twain sometimes he would eat outside on the deck and Pinto would watch him through the window from inside.

Pinter would hiss at him as if he was a complete stranger.  Then when Mr Fox and his wife managed to get Twain to come inside the house and participate in family life again, Pinter and Twain did not get on at all.  It was as if they were strangers.  There was great uncertainty and some hissing going on.

What had happened? Just because Twain had disappeared to 12 days the two best buddies had become strangers.  Dr Fox puts this down to the fact that feline friendships are formed within a certain context and that context is the home environment etc.  Taking one of the cats out of that context caused the friendship to falter or ceases.

In Dr Fox's words:
I interpret this as evidence of cognitive disassociation. In the cat’s mind---or in the minds of many cats,--- especially those who are more fearful/feral, they recognize others as non-threatening, friends/conspecifics in the holistic context of place/situation. Seen in another place/situation, context changes identity/recognition.
I tend to take a human emotion view of this behaviour but I could well be completely wrong and anthropomorphising cats.  On the basis that Pinto visually recognised Twain when seeing him on the decking after 10 days or so, perhaps he was simply angry at him.  He had missed him and was upset. Or the friendship had simply broken and Twain was a stranger again.

And then when Twain came inside and they met up inside there was an initial lack of trust because Twain's disappearance had broken that trust.  There was uncertainty and some hissing and typical cat behaviour reflecting uncertainties.

Then gradually they warmed to each other again, trust was rebuilt and they became close friends again.  It seems to me that basing an assessment on human emotions provides a better answer than the scientific one.

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