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Understanding the Human-Companion Animal Bond with Cats

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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There are two types of new kitten owners: Those about to embark on cat ownership for the first time and those with previous experience. For the latter "repeat" owners, what I am about to say may be old hat - or perhaps it might help them to understand why they developed such a strong bond with their pet. For first time kitten owners, this account will inform them what they have to look forward to as their kitten matures and develops into a beloved family member.

Why Do We Enjoy Having Pets?

It's a strange thing about us humans that we take such great pleasure in pet ownership (or as some would have us say, pet guardianship). Left to our own devices and desires we accumulate all manner of creatures to us – ones that walk or waddle, ones that hop or run, and ones that slither or swim. It seems that the other creatures with whom we share this planet hold great interest for us and we enjoy taking them on as dependents, nurturing them, or even striking up some kind of relationship with them.

For some pets, like iguanas, the relationship arrow points in one direction only - from us to them. Iguanas are solitary animals and prefer to remain so. It is we that enjoy having them around to look at, talk to, touch, feed, and show off. They become living chattel and live (healthily we hope) for our pleasure.

At almost the other extreme of the pet spectrum are domestic dogs and cats. Both these latter species have the capacity to enter into bilateral relationships with us: They invest dependence and trust and, in return, receive care and affection, even love. The bond that is formed is bidirectional, symbiotic, and sometimes extremely intense. So intense, in fact, that sometimes when one individual is deprived of the other, through perhaps illness or death, a state of depression can ensues (for either party). Some people bereaved of animals that they cherish are so severely affected that they need professional grief counseling. Pet loss grievance hotlines are springing up around the country to deal with this now more frequent occurrence. Similarly, bonded pets deprived of their owners' company for one reason or another may exhibit panic, anxiety, or frank depression.

Kittens as Pets

The bond that forms between a new owner and a kitten may develop rapidly or may take months or years to mature. People who have owned a new kitten for just a matter of days may find it difficult to return that kitten to the breeder even if they find out that the kitten is flawed in some way. A couple of weeks after the acquisition of a new kitten, most families would choose to keep their new charge despite veterinary predictions of trouble and expense down the road. As time goes by, the bond usually strengthens between the growing kitten and family members as the youngster assumes a significant role in its human family. Affections develop for the kitten's cuteness both because of the way it looks and the way it behaves. Nature has designed us to fall for this old trick. But later, experiences shared, both happy and heart rending, anneal the budding bond to shatterproof strength.

The Kitten Grows Up

By the time the kitten reaches one year of age, family members will often have developed special bonds with the youngster. Likewise, the kitten will have all but forgotten earlier times with its mom and littermates and will come to view human family members as its family. Each family member may play a different role in the relationships that develop. The man of the house may be "the entertainer" – the one who plays games with the cat. His wife may be the "nurturer" – the one who does most of the feeding and petting. The children may be more like peers to the kitten and become "the sibs." The well-treated kitten laps it all up, positively radiating affection and trust. Just as humans can appreciate their children maturing to become responsible adults, so the new kitten owner can appreciate the maturation of the young kitten into full adult cat-hood.

The interaction between the cat and the family has many different facets relationships between people. People and cats share fun loving moments, quiet moments, affectionate moments, and moments of concern, as the relationship continues to evolve and mature. Eventually, the owner knows their cat inside out - its needs and wants, its likes and dislikes, and its strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, the cat comes to understand its human caregivers, knowing what to expect and when, and who to trust and when. As with human relationships, not all moments are necessarily joyous. There may be times when owners becomes exasperated with their cat and times when the cat is out of sync with the owner, yet the theme of the relationship is one of mutual affection and respect.

This is the human/animal bond between an owner and a cat. It starts at the beginning, with the acquisition of a new kitten and will flourish until ripe old age. Because of the relatively short life span of cats (compared with our own), the end of the rainbow of a particular human/animal bond usually comes with pets' demise. Owners grieve and, as they well know, no pet is fully replaceable. Sure, the family can get another kitten, and relationship they establish with it may well flourish but each bond is unique and no relationship can be duplicated. Each cat passes this way only once, leaving in its wake a series of unique influences and indelible impressions.

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