Most creatures, humans included are more influenced by environment than by genetics when it comes to behaviour. I have a kitten, and he’s got me wondering about how we raise kittens compared to how we raise puppies, and how much of this is about human assumptions. There are going to be no ‘natural’ ways for a kitten to exist as part of a human household.
When I was a child, my grandmother had a rabbit who thought he was much the same as the household cats – he used the catflaps, flopped out in front of the fire and sat on people’s laps because that was clearly what you did. He seemed happy with this and I suspect it was a lot more fun than mostly living in a hutch.
Mr Anderson (the kitten) does not know that he is a kitten. He has no idea about the things people assume are true of kittens. He’s making this up as he goes along, and responding to his environment. About the only thing that seems to be hard wired cat behaviour, is the pouncing. He is perfectly happy to go outside on a lead. No one has told him that being free range is for cats and that supervised walks are for dogs. As a cat on a lead he is less of a danger to the wildlife and in less danger from cars.
Why is it that we recognise the threats dogs might pose to other beings, and the danger they are in from cars and thus do not let them out to play unsupervised in the road? Why do we take such different approaches to these two domestic animals that we as humans keep for our own amusement?
Mr Anderson plays fetch – throw a toy for him and he will often opt to bring it back so that it can be thrown again. He has no idea this is what people do with dogs, usually, not kittens.
As with the puppy-kitten issues, we raise human children based on certain assumptions. It’s normal to raise girls and boys in different ways – so normal that it may not even be a conscious decision. Simply choosing to put a girl in a dress or skirt that limits mobility while letting boys wear trousers has a huge impact on what a child gets to do. Consider the toys we give them, and our expectations. We tend to be more tolerant of aggression in boys, more accepting of tears from girls. Children aren’t so very different from puppy-kittens, and who we tell them they are has a lot of influence.
Mr Anderson gets excited when the lead comes out and someone says ‘walkies!’
The last three cats I took in were seniors who needed re-homing. Back in the summer, the third of these wonderful cats died at the mighty age of 19. We decided as a household that we would get a kitten. It felt like a rather indulgent thing to do, rather than finding another older cat in need of rescue. He arrived in early November.
We take kittens and puppies alike from their mothers far younger than they would leave in the wild. We do it so that they will bond with us as parent substitutes. It’s not a decision that is particularly in the interests of the creature, and I’ve been very aware of this. He has, however, not shown much sign of distress – just that first night when he didn’t know where to sleep and was clearly missing the kitten puddle he had been part of.
It’s been a long time since there was last a kitten in my life – back in my own childhood, so I’m not entirely confident about what it takes to be a good cat parent. But, I’ve tried to be a decent stand in for the kittens he would have rampaged about with, and the mother cat who might have rolled him over when he get too boisterous. I get chewed a lot, because I let him play with my hands like I’m another kitten. My legs are covered in claw marks. But when he’s not in crazy-kitten mode, he’s sweet and snugly.
I don’t want to punish him for being a kitten, and part of being a kitten is the play fighting and rampaging. I do reward him with extra fuss and attention when he does things that I like. We shall see. At the moment it looks like he’s willing to figure things out and be more co-operative – often an issue in the mornings when he wants to be where I am, which for him means on my keyboard and the diary and notes I work from. As I type this, he’s under the table, loudly killing a toilet roll. I think overall he’s more cooperative with me than he was on arrival.
At this point I have no idea if I’m being a good cat parent or not. I will find out over time, as the habits we build settle into something and I find out more about who he is. I expect kittens are a lot like people in that environment will have a big impact on development and behaviour. So, I try to make sure he is entertained and gets enough attention, and that he is happy. I’ve always thought the parenting of creatures and children alike should have more room in it for happiness than is often the case. I don’t mind if he isn’t obedient, that’s not what I seek in raising a young creature, but I do really want him to be happy.0060 (final comment there from the kitten himself as he joined in with the typing.)