Sunday, June 12, 2005

Social (& Anti-Social) Behavior

I've been looking into what's known about feline social behavior, mostly because I'm curious about how Leela sees us. There doesn't seem to be much, especially next to the rich social hierarchies of dogs, but there's something going on. Found a general survey in Science News of research by various scientists who seem to have no personal experience of cats themselves. Well of course they have variable personalities - don't you?

What got me started on this was Leela's tendency to sprawl on top of Laszlo. She finds a lot of uses for poor Laszlo around the house. She chases him when she wants something to play with. She curls up with him when she wants something warm and furry to sleep next to. This frequently turns into an orgy of mutual grooming and licking - but that can very, very quickly cross the line into full blown assault, with her teeth clenching him and her body sprawled across his so he can't escape.

It seems like it might be something proto-sexual, though they're both neutered and the (former) genders are reversed. But sex plays its part in social dominance structures as well, so I wonder if this is basically her showing Laszlo that she's in charge. It certainly never works the other way around.

However, both cats will get on top of us, and now I'm beginning to wonder if that means something different to them than it does to us. My old cat Max used to love to climb up on my chest when I lay down. He'd curl up directly over my heart and purr like mad. Laszlo does exactly the same thing. The purring and the preference for the chest suggest that it's something comforting, a throwback to curling up with a mother and feeling the reassuring rhythm of her heartbeat that perhaps carries even deeper memories of the womb.

Until pretty recently, Leela showed no interest in this at all. For me it's a pleasant way to share affection, so I'd encouraged it, but she didn't really get the idea. More recently, however, she seems to have picked it up - perhaps from observing Laszlo. The key difference is that she doesn't go into the mad purring jags, and she doesn't seem interested in my heartbeat, preferring the less bony environment of my lower abdomen.

So I'm not sure, but now I'm wondering if she views this as her rightful place as the alpha of the house. God knows she doesn't show any particular respect for our wishes in any other area. More research is called for, if only so I can simulate some measure of control...


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