The ties that bind

I've been thinking about the topic of cat social life for a very long time. We repeatedly hear how cats are loners and do not have a social structure. We are told that they do not seek out the companionship of fellow cats. My unscientific observations tend to make me think these statements are not always true.

About three years ago Nancy from Maddie's Meadows asked me to take four siblings. They had been living in her laundry room and Nancy had hoped that their fear of people would gradually diminish and she could place them in homes. But that hope didn't materialize and Nancy gave me a call to see if I could add them to my feral colony. Since providing safe haven for unadoptable felines is one of the main functions of the farm I agreed to take them.

The four arrived and we put them in the barn holding cage. This cage was specifically designed to provide safe and secure housing for ferals that would eventually be turned loose on the farm. Cats that lived in the cage became accustomed to our comings and goings and would eventually be turned loose to live their lives as they pleased without interference from humans unless they wanted that attention.

The four wanted no part of us and when we finally released them they all disappeared for about three months. There were three orange brothers and a calico sister. Gradually I began to see the brothers. They were always together moving from one area to another. The calico had disappeared for months but the three brothers remained together constantly for about six months when one disappeared. I thought that was the end of him as nature can be a dangerous place. The two brothers continued to remain together.

What has happened is that one of the three brothers comes and goes and I often don't see him for weeks or even months at a time. The calico female (Ghost)has always been a loner and she too only shows herself infrequently. But two of the orange brothers are always together. They go to the feeding station together, roam the fields together and play together in the yard when they think no human is watching. They were my first real glimpse of two cats who needed the companionship of each other to be happy and secure emotionally. Had they been tame and adoptable there is no way I would ever have separated them. In fact the three brothers probably should get adopted together since the third orange brother only became independent after months of freedom on the farm.

And that brings me to Rodeo and Rose. Like the four above, the two are littermates. Unlike the others, these two are incredibly friendly so are highly adoptable. I began to notice how bonded they are when we went to the barn to do chores. The two had been held in the house for their adjustment period since they were so tame but they liked going to the barn. They always went together. Where one was, so was the other one. I thought maybe this was a fluke. Just a coincidence. But I gradually realized that these two, who were surrounded by other cats, almost always went places together, sought each other out to play and to sleep together. Just as three of the four ferals from Maddies Meadows were strongly bonded, so are Rodeo and Rose.

So why am I talking about these cats? Because I think it is important that rescuers pay close attention to the social lives of the kittens and cats in their care. It is important to see who is bonded together and try very hard to make sure those bonded cats are adopted out together. Just as humans feel strongly that families should stay together, I believe that 'cat families' should be allowed to stay with friends or siblings when adopted. I wonder what emotional trauma we force on these little furry souls when we separate best friends or bonded siblings? Do we do irreparable emotional damage to them by separating them? I can't help but think that we do.

Those of us that work with large animals know that many farm animals, sheep, goats, horses and cows, are herd animals and keeping just one is a form of solitary confinement. You could even say it is a form of abuse to force an animal, with a social structure that requires them to have other members of their species to live with, to live alone. We even know that dogs have a similar social structure to humans and because of that we recognize the importance of housing dogs with their family or with another dog. But we seldom think about the need of cats to have companionship of other cats because we are told they are solitary animals. There is no doubt in my mind that some cats want nothing to do with other cats but my decades of living with many many cats has shown me that not all cats are solitary. They do form bonded groups. Taking that a step further, some cats desperately need the companionship of specific feline friends or siblings.

The conclusion. It is up to us to identify those cats that should never be separated from their bonded friend or sibling. And if we do separate them....are we causing such emotional damage that the cats in question will go through live miserable? Or will they overcome that separation and thrive. I don't know the answer to that.

ome interesting reading on the social structure and life of domestic cats and feral colonies. Many of the social behaviors identified in some of the articles I have seen in my colony.

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