Katz Tales: Are shy cats a bad thing or will it save their lives?

  • Animals
  • Monday, 13 May 2019

Curious but shy kittens. Cats are by nature social, they live in big family groups in the wild, but pet cats who miss out on that early socialisation often do become shy. Photo: 123rf.com

Two weeks ago, I stepped out of the house to talk to Swooner and Charlie, only to discover two men in a van sent by the local council trying to take our pet cats. It caused an uproar in our community and sparked ongoing discussions with various parties.

While it’s too soon to talk about that – we’ll have to leave it to the next issue – it did highlight another topic of interest: should you be socialising your cat?

When that van stopped outside my house, Swooner was cautious while Charlie was friendly. Target was behind me, following me as he always does, and he shot inside the second he saw the men. Swooner took his cue and followed rapidly. Charlie, however, was rolling on his back and presenting his tummy.

Up until two weeks ago, it worried me that Target is so shy. I’ve always had boldly social pets who enjoy "talking" to people.

Target has always been nervy. He was raised lovingly by his rescuer and by us, but he’s always a little edgy. I think it’s because he spent his kitten time in a cage. It was a biggish cage and he got playtime, but it’s not the same as being raised by a cat.

Target wasn’t raised by his mum because she died when he was a kitten. He came to us when he was quite small, just a few months old. He was raised by Au, our senior cat then, who took him for walks, taught him to climb the tree in the garden, and to hunt.

Target adored Au, but he preferred to spend his time with me. He has been my office manager from day one. Back then he needed to be helped up onto my desk. Now he sails up in the air, confident that his spot will be waiting for him, free of papers.

So why is my little cat shy? It’s my fault – or rather that of my lifestyle. As I work from home and do my socialising outside, we don’t have a lot of visitors. It didn’t occur to me until recently that Target hardly ever sees other people.

Of course, he knows our neighbours. He’s very fond of Lilian, the lady who lives next door, and Umi, the lady across the street, because they speak softly and call him handsome. They also catsit for him when we’re away.

You’d think that as he’s known them all his life, he’d be happy to see them. Yet when they’re piling tuna in his dish, they tell me he won’t come for a cuddle when they’re catsitting. While Swooner is headbutting their ankles and asking to be stroked, Target sits on the stairs, ready to run up to the roof if they come too close.

When our friend Amanda came to stay for a visit, Target spent the first day outside, peering in nervously. Again Swooner was there, telling her where the cat treats were and begging shamelessly for attention, but Target kept a safe distance.

That difference in character really speaks to me because it says so much about cat behaviour. Cats are by nature social, they live in big family groups in the wild, but pet cats who miss out on that early socialisation or who live alone often do become shy.

In this way, cats are exactly the same as people. When we stop socialising for a long time, we find it hard to reconnect with others again. We have to relearn our social behaviour, or at least dust it off and upgrade it.

But just like people, some cats have a stronger social drive. When faced with tight or lacking community opportunities, they simply go out and expand their social circle.

Swooner is an excellent example of that kind of cat. He lived alone and injured on the street for some months – he almost died of starvation, in fact – but now that he lives with us, he’s very outgoing and well-adjusted.

We don’t have visitors, so Swooner has made his own friends. Charlie across the street is his best friend. The two play and quarrel like brothers. There’s also Potato down the street, and his two companion cats who have started to visit.

Swooner also chats to the human neighbours. When he sees his particular friends, he headbutts ankles and asks to be patted. And when we have visitors, he’s in heaven, seeing it as an excellent opportunity for endless ear and belly rubs. Plus, he’s completely evil about begging for treats.

Like I said, I thought that a good thing – until that van with those men came around. When I think of them, my heart just freezes. They could have picked up Charlie and Swooner and we would never, ever have known what happened to them.

That horrible incident, plus Guido vanishing back in January, have changed my mind about socialising my pets. From now on I’ll be encouraging Swooner not to talk to strangers. And when Target sits on the stairs, eyes big with concern, I’ll tell him he’s a clever boy to be cautious.

It saddens me to say that I find it frightening to see our safe home change to a hostile space, but I don’t see an alternative.

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