Think of the different cats you have met in your life. Some have been extra friendly, some nervous or fearful, some bold, some even perhaps aggressive. The cats we come across in our lives can vary from pet cats to community cats to wild living or feral cats. How they have come to be those cats depends on their parents, where they were born, how much handling they have had, and what experiences they had both at an early age and later in life. All of these things can have a profound effect.
A pet cat could be defined as one that’s happy to be around people and to interact with them – just what most of us want. However, at the other end of the spectrum is the feral cat, an amazing creature which, although it looks exactly the same as a pet cat and is of the same species, can behave very differently – in fact, more like a cat belonging to a wild species
Cats have a wide range of personalities. How confident or fearful a cat is in adulthood will be affected by what happens in kittenhood. Much of this ‘personality’ development has already taken place before we get our kitten. For the cat, learning to enjoy the company of people takes place pretty early in its life – somewhere from about three weeks to seven or eight weeks old. During this time the kitten hasn’t yet learned to fear everything, and its mind is open to forming bonds with other animals or people and learning how to deal with new experiences without being overwhelmed by them. Think about human children when they’re toddlers, and how fearless they often are – running off without a care, touching and tasting everything, falling over and getting up again. But as they get older they begin to worry and look for reassurance when they do things.
If kittens don’t experience people or human things during the early weeks of their lives they may never be able to see them as part of ‘normal’ life. Whatever happens in the feline mind as it matures in the first couple of months, it learns to avoid and fear things that aren’t familiar to it and this then seems to be fairly fixed thereafter. So a kitten which hasn’t been handled by people, met dogs or experienced everyday things such as vacuum cleaners, doorbells, children laughing and screaming and so on, may automatically find them very threatening and react accordingly. The cat may try to avoid any interaction with things it fears, perhaps hiding away or being aggressive if it’s pursued to be stroked. This often happens with kittens born to stray or feral cats which don’t meet people at an early age. People think that they are being kind in trying to nurture or ‘tame’ such cats, but often they are causing great stress. The cat’s mind doesn’t really have the ability to respond because the pathways weren’t created when it was young enough. Cats do continue to learn beyond eight weeks of age, but if the fundamentals are missing there may be little or nothing to build upon. So a fearful kitten is likely to be a fearful cat and no amount of love from an owner may have a great effect on this.
The point of this discussion about cat personality is to try and help new owners to understand what shapes the potential personality of a cat in relation to being a pet cat and living closely with people. Most owners want a cat that enjoys being with them and their family and friends. If you choose a fearful kitten because you feel sorry for it, and think that just by being kind you’ll bring it around, you may have a long and disappointing relationship. The kitten may actually develop into a very stressed adult because you’re asking it to live in a household that holds many fearful challenges for it. On the other hand, if you live a very quiet life and want a cat that’s not too demanding and will gradually get used to you and won’t be challenged by noisy teenagers or loud music, banging doors or lots of visitors, a rather less robust character may suit perfectly. If you want a cat that lives outdoors most of the time and simply want to respect it as a cat, appreciate its mousing activities and feed and care for it at a distance it’s comfortable with, then there are some less people-orientated kittens that will grow into cats which will be very happy to live this type of life.