Vicky Halls reports at the FAB Conference, October 2002
The majority of cats seen by pet behaviour counsellors are over the age of two years but the origins of the problems can often be traced back to kittenhood. The first few weeks of a cat's life form the emotional and behavioural building blocks of the future. It is important to understand the implications of this to ensure that cats receive the best start in life, both physically and psychologically.
Kittens' responses are limited and revolve around thermal, tactile and olfactory stimuli. They are relatively immobile but can use a slow paddling movement to travel very short distances. During this time and up to three weeks the kittens are totally dependent on the mother's milk for nutrition, nursing is initiated entirely by the mother. Eyes will open at any time between two and sixteen days but usually between seven and ten days. Teeth are starting to erupt at about two weeks of age.
Vision starts to play a role in guiding the kitten towards its mother. Rudimentary walking appears during the third week and by four weeks of age kittens can move a reasonable distance away from the nest. The body-righting reaction is fully developed by four weeks. The ability to right the body in mid-air while falling starts to appear during the fourth week and is fully developed by the age of six weeks. Under free-living conditions, mothers start to bring live prey to their kittens from four weeks after birth onwards. Four weeks is also the age at which kittens normally start to eat solid food and marks the onset of the weaning period.
By the fifth week kittens show brief episodes of running, and by six weeks they have started to use all of the gaits found in adult locomotion. By five weeks of age kittens may start to kill mice. As weaning progresses, the kittens become increasingly responsible for initiating bouts of nursing.
By this time voluntary elimination has developed, and kittens are no longer dependent on their mother to lick their perineum to stimulate urination.
Kittens have begun to show adult-like responses to threatening social stimuli, both visual and olfactory. Weaning is largely completed by seven weeks after birth. By this time a kitten's ability to thermoregulate is the same as an adult.
Complex motor abilities, such as walking along and turning around on a narrow fence may not develop fully until ten to eleven weeks after birth. Visual acuity continues to improve until twelve to sixteen weeks. Sexual maturity can occur from six months of age (occasionally even earlier) and social maturity (adulthood) at any time between eighteen months and four years of age.
Whilst all the physical changes are taking place there are also behavioural and emotional lessons being learnt.
The development of behaviour depends both on genetic and environmental influences. It is impossible to separate one from the other since all behaviour patterns require both genes and an environment in order to develop. Genes “programme” an individual with the potential to react in a certain way in certain circumstances. The individual's life experiences then influence whether that behaviour is ever actually expressed and to what level. There is often an enormous difference in friendliness and general responses between litter mates that can only be explained by a difference in genetic programming, since environmental influences are new and relatively constant for all the kittens.
Influences on Behavioural Development
The Sensitive Period
The sensitive period is an age range during which particular events are especially likely to have long-term effects on the individual's development. In cats this is considered to be between the ages of two and seven weeks of age. Social relationships that depend on familiarity are formed at this time. Humans and other species may be incorporated into this social group and responded to with affection.
A great deal of research has been conducted into this sensitive period and the amount and type of handling that is required to give the kittens the best possible start. The conclusion of most if not all the studies is that handling by a number of different people during this time will tend to increase the sociability towards humans. Positive exposure to environmental challenges such as noise, children, dogs, even car journeys and the chance to explore different areas will better equip the individual to cope with life in the future.
This does not mean however that without this important socialisation the individual will never be friendly or cope with domestic life. With the appropriate genetic blue-print, unlearned patterns of behaviour can be modified by learning and other forms of experience later in development.
Young cats also learn a great deal from their mothers. Cats are extremely effective observational learners, which means that they are able to learn new behaviours by observing a conspecific's experiences.
There are numerous other ways that behaviour can be influenced and nutrition, for example, plays an important role. There is no question that undernourished mothers produce kittens with behavioural abnormalities and delayed development. These include poor learning abilities, antisocial behaviour towards other cats and abnormal arousal levels expressed in fear and aggression. Some of these characteristics can be inherited by the next generation.
Neutering both sexes at or around puberty is bound to have a profound effect on future behaviour. We believe that early castration of the male at this time will greater increase the likelihood of a home loving pet who will not develop the aggressive territoriality of the adult entire male.
Intensive nursing during illness can be incredibly effective in increasing sociability and dependency in cats that have previously been independent.
Hand-rearing can create its own challenges and often the emphasis is on the kitten's physical and nutritional needs rather than considering emotional and behavioural development. There appears to be a significant incidence of aggression in adults that have been hand reared. Peter Neville has researched this problem and suggests that this results from inappropriate weaning which fails to mimic the mother's ability to frustrate her offspring by signals of non-reward for previously rewarded behaviour when they approached for food. The need to face adversity and the concept that life can be frustrating is essential for future survival.
Social experience with siblings also seems to play a role in the development of later social skills. Kittens with no experience of siblings when young do eventually form social attachments but are generally slower to learn social skills than normally reared kittens. Solitary kittens also do not learn inhibition of bites in agonistic play behaviour if they target human hands rather than siblings. A person cannot possibly teach the boundaries of acceptable levels of physical force as well as another kitten.
Social play becomes prevalent by four weeks of age and continues at a high level until twelve to fourteen weeks, when it begins to decline. Social play-fighting can sometimes escalate into serious incidents, especially during the third month. Play with objects develops at around the time when live prey is being introduced to the nest by the mother and kittens start to gain the eye-paw coordination that enables them to deal effectively with small, moving objects at around seven to eight weeks after birth.
Social play mimics agonistic social behaviour and predatory behaviour. There is however no evidence to prove that play increases successful predatory behaviour in adulthood.
This appears to be influenced by observation of the mother, experience with prey when young and possibly competition between litter mates in the presence of prey. Despite early influences most cats become competent predators, albeit with particular preferences for the type of prey.
It would be difficult to discuss behavioural development without looking at personality. Despite a basic ability to respond socially towards people, adult cats and kittens show considerable individual variation in their friendliness towards humans, whether familiar or unfamiliar, and even kittens from the same litter can differ considerably in their friendliness. One will be shy, one will be confident and explore the room whilst another will seek the company of humans. Differences in response to the various social and environmental stimuli gives each cat its unique personality.
There are numerous ways to categorise character and personality, but there are two basic models, excitable/reactive and slow/quiet. Variations in excitability and timidity are believed to be caused by inherited differences, such as the amount of adrenaline released when faced with a challenge. Certain breeds are described by temperament, for example Siamese are considered to be sociable, affectionate, sensitive and vocal, Burmese are assertive and outgoing and the Persian is placid. All of these descriptions must imply that these characteristics are inherited.
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The three case histories that follow illustrate the more common problems seen in the kitten and young cat by pet behaviour counsellors. Many behavioural problems appear to develop at the onset of adulthood or the time when the cat is considered to be socially mature. This is often the time, for example, when previously equable cats turn into solitary individuals who find the concept of living in close proximity with other adult cats difficult and stressful. The reason why all mature cats do not react in this way is probably another example of variations in the degree of sociability with conspecifics. Those problems seen in the kitten or younger cat usually involve inappropriate learning or lack of early socialisation.
Case History No. 1
Morgan - Play aggression
Morgan was a fourteen week old male Burmese cross. He was obtained from a domestic home at the age of approximately seven weeks. He came from a litter of five kittens.
There were two adults, Mike and Jill, and no other pets in the household. He lived in a second floor apartment with no access to outdoors.
During the first two weeks in his new home he was defensively aggressive and withdrawn. He soon improved and became more and more confident, investigating strangers and novel items with interest. The problem started within a couple of weeks of his arrival. Morgan started to pounce on passing human legs and lashing out with his claws during play. Mike, being used to dogs, had played physical games with Morgan since his arrival. These games involved “rough and tumbles” using his hand to simulate a siblings play fighting. Morgan enjoyed playing interactive games and appeared to have incredible energy. A few weeks prior to the consultation he had escalated his scratching behaviour to biting and would launch himself, not only on Mike and Jill, but on anyone that arrived at the apartment. He would run across the furniture at great speed, straight over any humans that happened to be sitting there. Jill appeared to be the greatest target for this behaviour. She had been badly scratched on several occasions and, as a result, was extremely reactive when “attacked”.
Morgan was a bold kitten with a tremendous need for stimulation and he had learnt (from his physical games with Mike) to use his human companions as substitute siblings for agonistic and predatory play. Boisterous games were terribly exciting, just at the time in his development when siblings would be helping him learn to regulate his biting by either biting back or interrupting the game. What he was getting instead was a reaction from his owners that he found intensely exciting, which further reinforced his desire to continue the behaviour. Attention from Mike and Jill was rewarding and stimulating, therefore any behaviour that illicited a response, ie attacking or running all over people, became learnt behaviours.
Punishment is ineffective particularly in cases of this kind. Morgan had directed most of his aggressive play towards Jill because she was the most responsive. This was teaching him significant lessons, albeit erroneous, about what was acceptable and rewarding behaviour.
Behaviour Modification Programme
In order to extinguish this sort of behaviour a programme of non-reward is essential.
Morgan still had an enormous need for both physical and mental stimulation, so providing alternative activities whilst “ignoring” inappropriate behaviours was the basis of the behaviour modification techniques used.
His food was changed gradually over a period of seven to ten days to a dry complete growth formula. This enabled the food to be placed around the apartment to allow Morgan to “forage” for his food. As he became used to the concept the acquisition of the food became more challenging.
Alternative games were played at the times when Morgan was traditionally more active using a fishing rod type toy to allow simulated prey to be agitated for him to chase. This allowed the game to be totally remote from the owners body.
Cardboard boxes, paper bags and tubes were used to construct changing disposable activity centres that could be entered or climbed. Dry loose catnip was placed in several locations inside to provide an alternative reward. (This can have an excitable effect on certain cats so this was used with caution and when the owners were out.)
The owners were instructed to ignore aggressive biting and scratching and running over people. They were asked not to make eye contact, move or show any emotion. Mike adapted to this extremely quickly but Jill was nervous. It was eventually agreed that she would only be able to ignore the behaviour if she was suitably protected with strong clothing.
Mike and Jill would have physical contact with Morgan when he was quiet and resting. This would involve stroking but only of a short duration. Mainly he was encouraged to sit with them on the sofa.
The results were extremely encouraging and Jill learnt to relax. Morgan was praised for acceptable behaviour and he developed into an active but “non-violent” cat towards humans. The family moved to a new home and Morgan thoroughly enjoyed having access to outdoors.
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Case History No. 2
Joey & Jessie - Nervous kittens
Joey (male) and Jessie (female) were approximately five month old domestic shorthair siblings. They were born outside to a domestic mother who was well socialised with humans. There was no evidence of either kitten having contact with humans during the most sensitive developmental period between two and seven weeks of age. They were taken initially to another home at approximately eight to ten weeks of age where they remained until being re-homed. They now live with Mary in a two bedroom ground floor flat.
Despite having made progress in their first home, the kittens were extremely nervous on arrival at Mary's flat and they hid behind kitchen appliances and were even defensively aggressive when removed from behind the refrigerator.
Cats deprived of the important opportunity as tiny kittens to face the challenges of contact with different things can develop into incompetent and reactive adults. Every new situation then is potentially frightening and stressful since there is no previous experience to teach the appropriate response. Although both kittens had not had contact with humans during this period they were naturally fairly bold and sociable cats. By carefully introducing them to the delights of human company, by making every interaction pleasant and non-threatening, both Jessie and Joey would soon become less and less reactive to Mary's presence. This process needed to include other people to ensure that they did not develop a trust of one particular individual to the exclusion of any others. They also needed to experience new challenges to help them build up their confidence in general.
Behaviour Modification Programme
The kittens were allowed the run of the bedroom, hallway and lounge whilst Mary was in the house, having previously ensured that the fireplace was blocked and any other potential hazards had been removed from the area. The kitchen was “out of bounds”. When Mary was not in the house the kittens were placed in the bedroom with the door shut.
A tall modular activity centre was placed in the living room in a location where the kittens could see all of the room and through the window. This included sections where the kittens could hide if they felt vulnerable.
Cardboard boxes with holes cut in were placed in the hall and living room to give the kittens a safe place to hide away if they felt threatened. If either Joey or Jessie found a favoured hiding place this would be respected and not disturbed to ensure it continued to be perceived as secure.
Mary was asked to play with the kittens as often as possible by using remote predatory games on “fishing rods”. She would make no eye contact and encourage the kittens to play the games and target the toy directly on or near her own body. Once the kitten was distracted with a game then stroking of all parts of the body could take place, starting with the head and moving across the body. Dried catnip was also used to entice the kittens to explore closer to her body.
Once the stroking was well tolerated then Mary could concentrate on developing the concept of restraint. This involved gentle holding pressure for seconds followed by immediate release and more stroking. The gentle holding then progressed to taking the weight of the kitten and then lifting for longer and longer periods of time. Ultimately the goal was to be able to pick either kitten up and hold against the body.
Mary was asked to walk around normally to get the kittens used to the normal sounds and movements of adult humans. She had previously been creeping around and this had created an air of tension rather than reassuring the kittens.
If either one responded fearfully then she was told to ignore the kitten to avoid reinforcing the negative emotion. She was also instructed to allow both kittens to make the approach rather than vice versa.
After the eight week programme both kittens had been introduced to the cat flap and they were spending short periods of time outside when Mary was home. They were approaching her regularly for attention and Joey had become a lap cat!
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Case History No. 3
Daisy & Puff - Inappropriate urination/defecation indoors
Daisy and Puff were five month old female Abyssinians. The kittens were obtained at twelve weeks of age and introduced to a large six storey home in central London . They were kept as indoor cats, initially with free run of the house and one single litter tray in the kitchen.
After a few days there was an isolated incident of urine being passed on the mat in the bathroom on the fourth floor. There were no further “accidents” until approximately one month later when one of the kittens urinated on the duvet in the master bedroom during an excitable game. Since then one or both of the kittens had urinated and defecated on different beds and carpets. The kittens were then confined to the kitchen, dining room and basement area and an additional litter box was provided in the kitchen. They continued to eliminate in areas of carpet in the basement whilst still using the tray on occasions.
This property was extremely large in overall floor area and, by allowing the kittens full freedom at a young age, they had found themselves in situations where they needed to urinate and defecate without easy access to an appropriate litter tray. Under these circumstances many cats can control their habits and appear to have a deeply entrenched desire to locate the loose substrate in order to eliminate.
However kittens do not have this same degree of control over their toilet functions and “accidents” were an almost inevitable result. The habit of using a litter tray with a loose granular content was not an intensely conditioned response in these kittens and rather than continuing to eliminate appropriately they chose to return to alternative surfaces and locations, drawn by the development of a new habit.
Behaviour Modification Programme
The aim of the programme was to make appropriate litter arrangements as attractive and accessible as possible. It was also necessary to ensure that the habit of using these trays became firmly entrenched before gradually reintroducing the kittens to the rest of the property. The kittens were confined to the kitchen and basement for eight weeks.
A fine grain litter material was placed in one litter tray and the original product used in the other to gauge their preference if any. Plastic liners were removed from the trays since this seemed to be causing some distress as they raked in the litter and got their claws caught. Soiled areas and faeces were removed from the tray twice a day and the litter completely replaced once a week.
A covered tray was also offered to see if this proved attractive. Two trays were placed in the kitchen area and one in the basement, all trays were placed well away from feeding area.
Areas of carpet and bedding that had previously been soiled were cleaned using Animalcare's Odourzorb granules (now no longer available). Wherever possible, damaged carpet was lifted and the underlay and flooring treated also. Furniture was moved in soiled areas to change the appearance of the location and prevent access to the kittens.
Paper bags and cardboard boxes were again recommended to provide interest and changing environments to stimulate exploration. The family was encouraged to play with the kittens.
The kittens returned to an acceptable routine of elimination behaviour, favouring the covered litter tray in the kitchen and the open one in the basement. The finest grain litter was used more frequently so all three trays were changed to contain this material. Gradually other areas were made available to the kittens starting with the staircases to the upper four floors. Eventually only three doors (formal entertaining rooms and the master bedroom) were left closed and the kittens were able to access the rest of the rooms. The second tray in the kitchen was placed on the top floor to avoid any return to the inappropriate urination and defecation. Daisy and Puff are now adults and using the trays consistently.
Information taken from: http://www.fabcats.org/behaviour/understanding/kitten.html