They seemed to understand that she was ill, but they took it all in their furry stride. They’d sit with her on the counter, watching the birds at the feeders, or sun themselves with her in the breezeway.
This past fall I saw our cats behave similarly toward Topaz, our almost 15-year-old flamepoint Siamese. Topaz, who had both kidney and heart issues, was treated with all the respect due an elder. Phoebe, the fluffy self-appointed matriarch of the clan, looked after him, checking on him and sometimes even washing him.
And she must’ve laid down the law to the others because when she was otherwise occupied with affairs of state, 1 or 2 of the younger cat would be curled up next to him sharing their body heat with increasingly fragile old man.
Sometimes, when I watch the cats interacting like this, I can’t help feeling like anthropologist Margaret Mead doing field research in Samoa.
Big Cats, Little Cats
Back in 1991, National Geographic put out a documentary called “Caressing the Tiger.” One of the more intriguing segments focused on a British study that showed striking similarities between cat colonies and lion prides.
Barn cats shared mothering responsibilities and even nursed each other’s kittens as did lionesses did. So far, so good. Unfortunately, some of the parallels were far darker. Tom cats, like their leonine cousins, often killed kittens fathered by another male. Bereft of her litter, the mother cat would go into heat, and the tom cat would mate with her, thus ensuring that his line would be continued… “The Tudors” with paws and whiskers.
Since then, it has been discovered that cheetahs, too, are very social. Siblings hunt and hang out together. What’s more, brothers will, according to Sarah Hartwell in her article “The Unsociable Cat – Are Cats Really Unsociable?” actually “take solitary females hostage until she is receptive to being mated. All the brothers will mate with her over a period of days.”
The domestic cat forms the third “social felid” group, says Hartwell, “playing, sleeping and even hunting together. Many form close attachments to other cats and even to other domestic animals.”
Reverting to Their Wild Roots
Generally, our cats interact pretty well with one another, showing the kind of gentleness and understanding that I alluded to earlier. But once in a while, I see another side of their feline instincts.
Years ago, we had a flamepoint Siamese kitten, Houdini II, who had been born with an atonal bladder and bowels, resulting in chronic constipation. Almost none of the other cats would go near him. And when he finally had to be euthanized 11 days later, you could practically hear the collective sigh of relief.
To them, he was a threat to the group. Had they been living in the wild, his presence would’ve attracted predators. They would probably have abandoned or even destroyed him, something that once happened to a kitten when I was a child.
I saw a similar ostracism happen when Iris, one of our Siamese, was dying of cancer. Of course, we didn’t know it was cancer until afterward, when my vet did a partial autopsy. But the rest of the cats did and kept their distance. Only Circe, our blue Aby whom Iris had mothered, stayed loyally by her side. She even slept curled up against her foster mama the night before Iris made her last trip to the vet.
“I’ve found that in most cases where one housemate is on the way out, he or she will be protected by the others,” observes Dr. Thomas D. Morganti of the Avon Veterinary Clinic in Avon, Connecticut. “But cancer might be different because it definitely puts out an odor that animals can sense.” Morganti still believes, however, that the “mothering” or caregiving instinct is “probably more the rule than the exception.”
What it comes down to is that feline group dynamics are much more complicated than we realize. And Kipling had it wrong: Not all cats walk by themselves. Apparently, it takes a village in the cat world, too — and not just to raise kittens.