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December 15th is designated National Cat Herder’s Day, but oddly, this holiday is not dedicated to cats but rather to humans who can handle others, as well as themselves, no matter what life throws their way.
The phrase “herding cats” is used when referring to tasks that cannot be done without a great deal of effort and patience.
Unlike their canine counterparts, domestic cats are not pack animals, so the phrase refers to the incredible difficulty it would take to command, or even wrangle, cats into a group or herd. However, there is some evidence that the feline disdain for group living is lessening as exhibited by their tolerance for living with us humans.
Daniel Mills, professor of veterinary behavioral medicine at the University of Lincoln, United Kingdom, along with colleague Alice Potter demonstrated that cats are more solitary than dogs8.
In the wild, wolves form packs, birds flock, fish school, zebras herd, and our feline pal’s cousin, the lion, lives in prides. Animals in groups benefit from being in numbers as predators cannot come after all of them at once. Together they find food and shelter more efficiently, and together, they help each other raise their young.
Penguins even know that they can stay warmer huddled together, so what makes the domestic cat so independent?
According to Mills, what makes the domestic cat so independent has to do with economic reasoning deeply engrained in cat behavior. Except for the lion who preys on the large wildebeest which provides food for the entire pride, most feline predators hunt smaller prey, suitable for one meal. If another cat is nearby, a competition could erupt over the prize.
Cats are not completely anti-social, but their level of socializing is on their own terms as they often perform behaviors that keep them distant from others. Spraying, for example, is a territorial behavior to avoid close encounter with other cats. Should a face-to-face occur, hackles raise and claws come out!
The tide however, may be turning in feral cat colonies where rescuers observe felines congregating to care for their young. In the Roman Colosseum, hundreds of cats can be found living together9, while on the one-mile wide Island of Aoshima in Japan, cats outnumber people six to one10.
When Monique Udell performed early experiments on domestic cats in her Human Animal Interaction Lab at Oregon State University, she found it difficult to motivate her feline subjects.
Previously working with dogs who accommodated her requests in exchange for food rewards, Udell found cats were not so easily pleased. She began having small successes when she gave cat subjects the option of choosing their reward, in other words… allowing the cats to respond on their own terms. Udell speculates that part of the challenge is in just how much, or how little we actually understand cats.
A considerable amount of animal behavior, including resistance to or an affinity for herding, lies in an animal’s neural circuitry but it may also depend on our relationship with that animal.
Even if Cat Herder’s Day isn’t really about cats, make a point of enhancing the bond you share with your feline best friend.
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Denise Fleck is the Pet Safety Crusader™ having personally taught more than 20,000 humans to rescue Rover or help Fluffy feel better. Her mission is to help YOU make a difference in the life of an animal through Pet First-Aid, Senior Pet Care and Disaster Preparedness classes, her “The Pet Safety Bible,” and the dozen other books she has penned. Learn more at www.PetSafetyCrusader.com
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8 “Domestic Cats Do Not Show Signs of Attachment to Their Owners,” by Alice Potter and Daniel Simon Mills, PLSO One
9 “Colonia Felina Torre Argentina Rome,” by by Durant Imboden, Europe for Visitors
10 AO Island