Monday, April 12, 2010 8:38 PM

Environmental Influences on Cat Behavior

Although I had always leaned more towards the environmental influences on behavior, I actually acquired the perfect test subjects for a study to prove this theory when I brought home the litter of kittens I found at the lab 13 years ago. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that we kept three of the kittens for ourselves and gave one of the males to some friends of ours. This turned out to be a perfect opportunity to observe how much influence the nurture part of the equation really would have in the personality development of these four kittens.

Early on, my friend had trouble with her kitten. She and her husband had two neutered middle aged cats already, both of whom were very nice. She would call me in a panic a few times a week over her inability to control this small kitten. "He's growling at everyone when I feed him!" She complained; when I told her to pick up his food and not let him eat it until he stopped growling, though, she refused. "He's got a sock in his mouth and is growling! He won't let me take it!" Take the sock away, I said. She claimed she couldn't. When he got bigger, he would beat up on the other males. One of them actually ran away for a while because she and her husband would not stop this behavior.

Mind you, we had three of these kittens at our house, all doing the same things but being taught the difference between what was acceptable and what was not. By the time these cats were a year old, our cats were sweet and friendly, while their brother, having learned he could do whatever he wanted, terrorized the other two cats in their household and drew blood from anyone silly enough to try to pet him. Of course, when people would ask my friend if her cat would bite or scratch, she would invariably say, "no", despite the livid marks on her own arms. If I was there, I would tell them the truth and let them make their own decision. She never cared for that!

Certainly, this proves that environment and training have more impact on the behavioral maturity of animals than heredity does. This makes perfect sense to me, since, now matter how well-bred an animal may be, there is no way for it to know the house rules unless taught. Young children and animals need direction and training to teach them how to behave later in life, when their youth and immaturity will no longer be an adequate excuse for bad behavior. Only an exemplary individual would be able to discern proper behavior in the absence of education.

While it is true that the older an animal gets, the harder it is to break bad habits (seems I've heard this about humans, too). It is not impossible, however, and patience and persistence on your part will reap great benefits if, for example, you adopt an older cat with ingrained habits you don't approve of. Be firm, gentle and loving and your cat will respond. Cats are smart, and will soon realize that doing things your way is the path to happiness!
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Amanda has worked with animals for many years and has always had cats in her life. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two excellent cats.
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