Sunday 19 November 2017

Looking for the perfect kitten to replace our Spin

By Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Kittens need to be socialised with humans from early on
Kittens need to be socialised with humans from early on

It's now a year since my favourite cat, Spin, passed away. He was a remarkable creature, full of good nature and friendship towards humans. It's taken a while, but my family is now ready for a new kitten, and we've been reflecting on the best way to find that perfect cat.

We do have two other cats already, and they are goo d examples of the challenging types of cats that are out there. Both cats were found as young kittens of two weeks of age, with their eyes just open. They had to be reared by hand. They had the optimal form of socialisation, being handled by people from an early age, and being exposed to the sights, sounds and smells of a busy home. This is supposed to give cats the best chance of growing up as people-friendly adults, but in the case of my own two cats, it wasn't enough. Both cats have grown up to have contrary attitudes to humans, each in their own way. My conclusion is that this is a classic example of the importance of both nature and nurture.

The two cats had the best possible "nurture", but it wasn't enough to counter the strong "nature" that they were born with. Their parents remain unknown, but my best guess is that at least one parent of each cat was a feral tom cat, and he's passed on strong genes to his offspring.

One cat, Sushi, seems friendly enough at first. She's a big fluffball, with long hair and a pretty appearance. She has one issue that's an unfortunate one: she's prone to randomly attacking passing people. Sometimes this is funny: I might be walking past in my dressing gown at breakfast, and she'll leap onto my ankle, making me jump in terror until I realise that it's just Sushi. Sometimes, her attacks have been serious: when my elderly mother-in-law was visiting, Sushi once spontaneously attacked her hand, sinking her teeth in. We've learned to live with her occasional aggression: we warn visitors to keep their distance, and we treat her with respect, watching out for the twitch of the tail or the flattened ears that tell us she might be about to cause trouble. Sushi has never had a good reason to attack people: it's just something within her. We're fond of Sushi, but she's not a cat that you'd feel comfortable having on your lap. The risk of a hissy fit is too high. Sushi has an innate, aggressive streak, and nothing I can do will change that. This almost certainly originates from the genes of a feral cat parent that have a strong enough impact to defy the calming influence of living in a friendly household.

Our other cat, Couscous, has the opposite issue to Sushi: she is frightened of people. She is happy to sit five or ten yards away from humans, but if anyone comes much closer, she's inclined to run away. Over the years, she has become relaxed enough with her immediate human family, and she'll allow herself to be petted. But she's always tense, and any sudden movement will make her bolt into the distance. And if there are visitors to our home, she vanishes, finding her own hiding place where she can skulk out of view. Couscous has an innate fear of people, and again, this is inherited via the genes of her feral parents.

Some kittens from feral cats end up being calm, relaxed, friendly animals, but as we have found ourselves, there's always a risk that the unsociable genes of fear or aggression can have too strong an impact to change. Our friendly cat, Spin, was the offspring of two good-natured, friendly pet cats, and that was the source of his relaxed nature. So now that we are ready for a new kitten, we're looking for a kitten whose parents are both known. And that's more difficult to find than you might expect.

Cat rescue centres have plenty of adult cats needing homes, as well as dozens of lovely kittens. But with our experience of two unsociable cats, we've decided that we need to keep searching till we find a kitten who not only seems friendly, but whose parents we have met, so that we can gain some sort of impression of his or her genetic heritage. It's not so easy to find such a kitten: most pet cats are spayed or neutered when young. The most likely option may be the offspring of a pedigree tom cat: they are among the few male cats who are left entire. Sometimes cat breeders accidentally produce cross-bred kittens, and that's the most likely source of our next kitten.

A big cat show coming up in Dublin in late November will give us an opportunity to meet a gathering of pedigree cat breeders. We're hoping that this might give us the lead towards that perfect kitten that we have in our dreams.

Meanwhile, we are keeping our eyes open. You just never know. Many of the most successful pets seem to randomly appear in people's lives. A cold wet kitten is spotted, huddled beside the road on a rainy night. A tiny bundle of fluff appears in your driveway, seemingly out of nowhere. An injured creature is found by a neighbour, and you agree to look after it for a day. There are many ways that cats arrive in people's lives, and it's often not a planned event.

We may have our own ideas and plans about where we'll find our next kitten. But the truth is this: nobody knows and only time will tell. I'll report back here when that happy day finally arrives.

Wexford People

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