By R. Scott Nolen
Centuries ago, the French humanist and skeptic Michel de Montaigne wondered, "When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?"
Throughout the ages, humans have recognized the peculiar nature of cats. Some ancient cultures worshipped them. Even today, one can learn much about a person by determining whether he or she is a "cat person."
But centuries of fascination with cats have still left many unanswered questions about their fundamental nature. On July 18, during the AVMA Annual Convention in Minneapolis, Dr. Terry Marie Curtis sought to answer some of those questions with findings from a recent study about Felis catus.
Specifically, Dr. Curtis, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist who teaches at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, examined how familiarity and relatedness affect proximity and social grooming in cats. And what she and her colleagues discovered could help pet owners struggling with aggression among household cats.
Contrary to the notion that cats are solitary creatures, cats form social groups, Dr. Curtis explained. Such groups typically comprise families, usually related females and their offspring. Male cats, on the other hand, will either have ranges that overlap several groups of females or will visit one particular group.
Social grooming, or allogrooming, has been documented in 44 species of animals, including primates, cattle, dogs, deer, and rats, Dr. Curtis said. The benefits of this activity vary from parasite removal and wound care to reconciliation and reduction of social tensions.
For their study, Dr. Curtis and her colleagues observed a colony of 28 privately owned cats in Athens, Ga., several times during 2001. Many of the cats—16 males and 12 females, all neutered—had at least one relative in the colony, which represented five families.
Not surprisingly, their research verified that cats from the same family spent more time near each other than near unrelated cats and spent more time grooming each other than grooming unrelated cats. Nevertheless, unrelated cats that were familiar with each other did spend time together and groom each other.
Dr. Curtis said there is an inverse relationship between the time cats spend together and the rate of aggression. Because of this, Dr. Curtis suggests that veterinarians who are advising their clients on dealing with an aggressive cat recommend patience. Also, adopting siblings, a mother and her offspring, or unrelated kittens of the same age might be preferable to adopting single, unrelated adult cats.
Now that Dr. Curtis has helped solve one mystery relating to our feline friends, what's next? "Maybe next I can figure out why my cat sits in the bathtub and screams at the wall," she said.