The developmental period with their mother and littermates is an important area which is often skimped in rescue. Through ignorance or circumstances, we can adopt a kitten who was an “only child.” Which can leave a gap.
Our kitten learns a lot from their littermates.
Cats are born with a built-in peer group. While their mother is an important source of communication, their siblings are equally important. This is where they learn how to make friends.
We act as our cat’s “mom” in the form of care. But it is our cat’s friendship ability which contributes to our relationship bond as they become adults.
Just as a human baby’s smile is instinctual, so is much of the body language that kittens use on other beings. What is important is having their communications returned in some way, so they can exercise these social skills.
Even instincts need practice.
Littermates teach each other manners all the time.
This usually occurs when a kitten has to be reminded that they are being too rough. Kittens complaining to each other is how a kitten learns to moderate their attacks, and stay at playful levels.
When eating from a dish comes along, they learn how to take turns or stick to their own dish. Toys are mutually played with, and etiquette mutually enforced.
When there’s cries for help, Mom-cat comes along and reminds the offender to be more mannerly. Soon, the one who cries for help triggers the same response in the one who forgot themselves, whether Mom-cat is there or not.
The vital skills that will let our cats form friendships, with anyone, are built through littermate interaction.
While Mom-cat is very important, she’s busy with care, hunting food, and scanning for danger. Kittens play with each other much more than they get individual attention from their mother. When she teaches, she teaches them all, and the lessons get reinforced with the brightest students modeling for the rest.
I see this same interaction happening in my Cat Civilization.
Some cats are better at understanding humans, and they become Translators.
Some are concerned with monitoring aspects of their care and routines, and become Supervisors.
Some cats are so sensitive to proper behavior they remind other cats that they are about to get into trouble. And sometimes the other cat listens.
Cats happily getting along with other cats is a cat’s natural state, and it all starts with littermates.
What it all boils down to is building a cat who is a fully functioning gear in any social structure. Whether they are a single person’s Only Cat, or part of a large family which includes kids and dogs and other cats, any cat needs social skills in order to give, and receive, love.
When we fostered tiny Tristan at the age of three weeks, I was glad we had three older cats who would perform the vital littermate functions for us. Reverend Jim did headcleaning and cuddling, Olwyn made sure he knew The Rules, and James Bond, while a somewhat distant figure until Tristan got some self-control, enforced manners.
Mr WayofCats and I were performing Mom-cat duties, what with the feeding and cleaning and exercising we were doing, but it was only a matter of weeks that this little cat-speck was running around the place, paced by RJ and Olwyn at every step. We were able to step back and do our human thing. Because we had cats who were doing the cat things.
Despite losing his family of origin so soon, Tristan grew up without any developmental deficits. While Reverend Jim, who we adopted when he was four and a half months old, had been so neglected he knew very little about being a kitten. We had to teach him how to play and how to make cat friends.
So these issues can be handled. We simply have to be aware that they need to be.
Explore some littermate substitutes in Dear Pammy, How can I help my little orphan?
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There’s more ways to understand our cat with The Way of Cats than the article you are reading now. See all of my posts on WHY CATS DO THAT.