Kittens at four to six weeks of age are often very similar.
At four weeks they are just learning to explore the world and show virtually nothing of their adult personality development. When you look at all the variations in adult cat personalities, whether they are confident, nervous, playful, lazy, affectionate, independent, lap cat, non-lap cat, and everything in between, people often think that cats are the way they are because of how they were raised. This is partly true, but there are other factors that affect behavior. As an example, it is very hard to turn a non-lap cat into a lap cat. Almost all of what we see in an adult cat’s personality is innate to them and their development provided they received proper socialization as kittens. If you have two kids, and one is a grumpy pessimist and the other a cheerful optimist, yet they were raised by the same people in the same home, then we can’t blame the environment.
So then the question becomes, how do I help my cat, whose adult personality falls at one end or the other of the Predator or Prey scale, be the best and happiest cat she can be, so I can enjoy her company as much as possible?
- Recognize that cats are literally carnivorous hunters. No matter how much we domesticate them, we cannot remove the hunter from them. Secondly, domestic cats are also one of the few of the 38 species of cats in the world that are simultaneously predators and PREY. Domestic cats exist on a scale of “self identity.” see (or feel) themselves either at the very top as predators (confident hunters), or at the bottom as prey (nervous cats), or like most cats, fall somewhere in between.
- When our cat is somewhere towards the top or bottom of this scale we tend to see behavioral problems. The solution is to help meet the needs of the cat without becoming the object of the cat’s fear or confidence. Example situation: When someone describes what I call “drive by ankle biting,” or any sort of unprovoked aggression, it sounds like you have become the object of her predatory needs. In other words, you have become a big “mouse”. We need to get her to hunt something other than you!
- For cats at the low end of this scale, we see cats who are environmentally nervous or fearful. Noises, new people, changes in the environment, new locations all provoke a need for these cats to hide. What they’re effectively hiding from instinctively are other animals that would hunt them. The way we help this cat is to try to raise their confidence. We do this in several ways, by securing their environment, making it safer for them, providing hiding spaces, but also supplying ways to express status and confidence like giving them cat climbing furniture. Through height cats feel more confident, and express more confidence and status. Engaging our cat in gentle play, with treats (!) encourages the hunter in them and helps to give them a boost in confidence without risk. Receiving the treat reinforces the nature of getting to EAT after killing, which reinforces the cycle of predation.
- For cats, the cycle of predation has several steps: hunting, killing, eating and then sleeping, in that order. PLAY for cats is predatory behavior. Hungry cats may bite because this is what they do in nature. It’s hardwired into them. First they stalk (hunt), then bite (kill), and then they eat. It makes complete sense that some cats are more aggressive when they are hungry. It’s often true that the person who bears most of the aggression is the one who does most of the feeding. The cat is trying to provoke you into feeding them in the way they know best, even if it’s counterproductive.
In other cats the opposite can be true. The one who feeds them has a stronger relationship with them as they are fulfilling the role of “mother cat”.
See also Are You My Mother? Cats and Their Relationship to Us. and Cats and the Cycle of Predation. A complete and customized behavior modification plan can make significant progress to the point of real success with the cats described above.