Chris Kouwenhoven

Cats are from venus and dogs are from mars.

Sound familiar? Yes, there was a book published a few years ago with a similar title that discussed the differences between females and males. While dogs and cats are not from different planets, they are very different in the development of their social behavior. Understanding this difference is critical to appreciating the way dogs and cats behave in the presence of each other, others of their species and to humans.

I have mentioned in previous newsletters that dogs have a "pack mentality", which is to say they are most comfortable as part of a social group of their peers. Dogs hunt in packs and have established pecking orders within their group. This relative social order is generally determined largely by age, but sex may also play a role. Unlike many other species, the female dog appears to be the one responsible for guiding group action. Sexual maturity in the dog begins at about 6-9 months of age, depending on the breed size. Social maturity, however, does not begin until about two years of age. As dogs mature, they may stay with the pack, or may break away if they can not accept the pack's social hierarchy.

Frequently veterinarians are asked what is the best age to adopt a new puppy. Research has shown that while puppies focus on other dogs for social cues during the period from about three weeks of age until about two months old, humans provide these social cues in puppies from about five or six weeks of age to about three months old. Please note that these numbers are only guidelines, they many vary considerably for some puppies. What is critical is that puppies should be socially exposed to humans before three or four months of age so that their social skills may develop normally. The ideal time to adopt a puppy is at about two months of age.

Cats, often accused of being asocial, differ socially from dogs, but are certainly social animals. Domestic dogs have been subjected to intense pressure for breed selection which may have negative effects on social behaviors. While cats have also been bred to select certain physical characteristics, the extent of such selection has been much less intense than for dogs.

At the center of feline social life is the queen and her kittens. Kittens generally are weaned somewhere between five weeks and two months, although some kittens will continue to nurse for much longer if the queen allows them. This basic unit remains after weaning for about a year or so, although it is quite common to have multi-generational social groups. Such social groupings often provide for communal care of the young. The males are more likely to leave this social unit first.

Cats are solitary hunters and seem to prefer the type of prey that the queen hunted. Cats develop a preference for particular textures in foods that may be related to this prey preference. As many cat "owners" will attest, it is often difficult to change food types in adult cats. This may be related to this early preference in food texture.

Human socialization of kittens is extremely important. Kittens that are handled and exposed to humans from two weeks to two months of age make much better pets and often do not exhibit the aggressive tendencies that make some cats poor pets. Such handling is thought to encourage the urge to explore and acceptance of humans as a natural part of their environment.