Kitteh Relationships and Territories

I love buying and reading books on feline behaviour.  I find it fascinating to try to get inside their minds, even just a little, and understand why they do what they do.  Do I understand all of it?  Not even close!  But the process of learning it, in itself, is well worth it to me.

This is an excerpt I found in a book called The Tribe of Tiger by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.  No copyright infringement is intended, and I encourage anyone interested in the subject to find this book.  It has puzzled me for years, why older cats will give way to young ones, when one might expect them to be more aggressive about dominance.  Yes, it depends heavily on the overall situation, I know, but I couldn’t figure out any reason for it to happen at all.  When I saw this passage, I read it two or three times, I was so intrigued.

From pp 95-96:

Considering the affection that cats in groups show for one another, one might almost consider it the tragedy of the cat family that whether they want to or not, most young cats sooner or later move away from their group. Practical considerations drive them away. Except around farms, where the presence of stored grain keeps mice and rats in sufficient numbers and where the farmer supplements the food supply, the cat’s diet doesn’t encourage life in groups. Spacing is essential, and cats feel it. They don’t need a hostile stepfather to make them move — sooner or later they’ll be forced to move anyway. We were able to experience this with our own cats in a way that surprised me — they saw developments in our household that impelled emigration, while we, the human beings, saw nothing at all.

Our cats all came from that population that lived in and around our son’s house and barns. These cats were all related to each other through the female lineages, with neighboring males arriving to father new litters every once in a while. Our first cat, the white male Orion, had been born to our son’s high-ranking cat, the matriarch Manas, which may have enhanced Orion’s status in the group. His high rank may have explained his unusual confidence. Even as a kitten he dared to climb to the barn rafters in pursuit of swallows — he was the only kitten in that population ever to climb so high.

When he came to live with me and my husband, he was our only cat, and he made our house his house, spending all his time with us except when he went out to hunt, which he did by means of a cat door. About a year later, we also adopted his half sister, the inky Wicca, who at the time was about four months old, a lanky adolescent. Orion was older than Wicca and much bigger, and we expected that Orion would dominate her. But to our surprise, she evicted him. Within a week or so of her appearance he had abandoned the house except at mealtimes and had claimed as his territory the building that houses my office, a barnlike structure that we also use as a garage, tool shed, wood storage area, and home to several communities of mice. We might have gone on this way indefinitely, with Orion in the outbuilding and Wicca in the house, but we were given a third cat, the young Aasa, a cousin of the others although she had never met them. Aasa was the youngest and smallest of the three, but she took over the house in the same way that Wicca had done, and Wicca, by now a mature and very capable animal, moved into the outbuilding with Orion.

What motivated these emigrations? Not sex, since all our cats were neutered, which means that reproduction played no role whatever in their territorial arrangements. Cat behavior is so strongly motivated by individual choice that we at first tended to shrug off their arrangements as personal preference — another cat mystery that human beings cannot solve. But then visitors came to stay with us, bringing their cat, and Aasa moved out. When the visiting cat left, Aasa moved back. Clearly, something was happening that the cats understood and that we did not.

At last it came to me what the cats might be doing, how the situation might appear to them. Possibly they saw me in the role of mother cat. If so, each new cat might have seemed like the kitten of a new litter, a signal for the older kittens of the previous litter to strike out on their own. What makes this phenomenon most interesting is that wild or feral kittens sometimes stay to share space with the mother. And when they do, they almost certainly have been invited y the mother. But what might constitute an invitation, I didn’t know. So I didn’t give it. So perhaps my cats, in a very typical barn cat manner, moved to the outbuildings to give me and my “new offspring” plenty of room. There they stayed for the rest of their lives, although we tried everything, including imprisonment, to keep them with us in the house. They’d stay as long as we prevented their moving, but the moment the chance came, they’d go, leaving our house to young Aasa. Barn cats from a world of fields, barns, sheds, and outbuildings — they did what they knew to be right.

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