Vicky Halls VN – Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors
In order to understand the origin of personality and behaviour it is important to start at the beginning and acknowledge the incredible amount of physical and behavioural development that takes place from birth.
- Limited response to thermal, tactile and olfactory stimuli
- Dependent on mother’s milk for nutrition
- Eyes open
- Teeth start to erupt
- Vision starts to play a major role
- Rudimentary walking
- Body-righting reaction develops
- Mothers start to bring live prey to kittens
- Onset of weaning
- Brief episodes of running
- Using adult locomotion
- Increasingly responsible for initiating nursing
- Starting to kill prey
- Voluntary elimination
- Adult-like responses to threatening stimuli
- Weaning largely complete
- Adult-like ability to thermoregulate
Complex motor abilities start to develop between 10 & 11 weeks (for example turning round on a narrow fence or ledge) and vision continues to improve between 12 & 16 weeks.
An important physical and behavioural milestone occurs from 5 months onwards as a kitten matures sexually. Arguably the more significant ‘coming of age’ takes place between 18 months and 4 years when the cat will mature socially. At this time the individual becomes aware of territory and the need to defend or establish it.
Behavioural development is also taking place from birth onwards. How a cat ‘behaves’ as an adult is dependent on both genetic and environmental influences. The genes ‘programme’ an individual with the potential to react in a certain way in certain circumstances. Life experiences then influence whether that behaviour is ever actually expressed and to what level. An example of genetic influence would be a trait for ‘boldness’, considered to be inheritable from the father.
The development of character/personality
The breeder therefore becomes extremely influential in the development of personality in their progeny. The market demands that kittens are produced that behave in a way that is acceptable to the owners. For example, aggression or timidity would be considered undesirable, whereas sociability and confidence are seen as desirable traits.
There are a number of factors that influence behavioural development, for example:
Undernourished mothers, causing:
- Poor learning abilities in the kittens
- Antisocial behaviour towards conspecifics
- Abnormal arousal levels > fear, aggression
- Motor deficits (erratic running)
Neutering at or around puberty, causing:
- Reduced urine spraying (male)
- Reduced aggression to other cats (male)
- Reduced roaming
- Increased dependence on owners (male)
- Inappropriate learning due to lack of maternal influence
- Possible lack of sibling contact and inability to relate to conspecifics
- Frequent failure to frustrate kitten during weaning, leading to frustration aggression
- Increased need for ‘social referencing’ (see below)
Presence of siblings, causing:
- Increased confidence to explore
- Behavioural and physical development through play
- Good social skills
- Bite inhibition through play
The sensitive period takes place between two and seven/eight weeks of age when particular events are especially likely to have long-term effects on the individual cat’s development. Socialization at this time allows kittens to form positive associations with other species (including humans).
A great deal of research has been conducted into optimum handling quality and quantity. It is now generally agreed that the following represents ‘best practice’ in rearing kittens.
Handling: Optimum level 30-60 minutes per day
Number of handlers: 4+
Variety of handlers: Adults, children, male, female, quiet, noisy etc
Quality of handling: Touching all parts of the body, holding, talking, object play
It is also essential to include positive exposure to other species, including dogs, rabbits and small caged animals and birds.
‘Social referencing’ is a term used to describe habituation to domestic life. This habituation is sensory, so should include all the smells, sights, sounds, textures and tastes that would be experienced in the average modern home.
- Car journeys
- Vacuum cleaners, washing machine, tumble drier
- Cat carriers, baskets
- Carpets, wood floors, linoleum
- Litter materials (fuller’s earth, recycled paper, corn-based etc)
- Collars, harnesses
- Wet and dry food
- A variety of furniture
The benefits of play in social and behavioural development should not be underestimated. It teaches kittens the need for bite inhibition when playing and the ability to relate to members of their own species.
- Social play becomes prevalent at four weeks of age and continues at a high level until twelve to fourteen weeks
- Play with objects develops between seven and eight weeks
- Social play mimics agonistic social and predatory behaviour
There are various ways to categorize personality but there are two basic foundations for each type: excitable and reactive OR slow and quiet. It can be described more accurately by further breakdown to friendly, alert, inquisitive, placid, vocal or equable.
Certain breeds are described by their temperament, for example:
Siamese = sociable, affectionate, sensitive, vocal
Burmese = assertive, outgoing
Persian = placid
Unfortunately other behavioural characteristics apart from personality traits can also be inherited that are not so positive, including:
- Poor conditioning to litter substrates
- Intense territoriality
- Territorial aggression
- Wool eating
- Fur plucking
It’s important that breeders are aware of these potential predispositions as they are undesirable and should not be knowingly reproduced. The knowledge and information now available shows that these traits are not the product of experiences later in life but a genetic predisposition being expressed under the appropriate circumstances
The Breeders’ Responsibility
The breeders’ responsibility ultimately is to produce good pets!