DEAR DR. FOX: My two 3 1/2-year-old neutered male cats, Spunky and Binky, are littermates, and they are practically physically identical. Both are tabbies and can be distinguished only by the color of their collars. This complicates their relationships with the humans in the household.
Spunky is loving. He cuddles, kneads, purrs and always head-butts -- with me, mostly. Binky is aloof, and he does none of the same socializing with any of his human family. I learned head-butting from Spunky. From Binky, I have learned not to initiate head-butting, because he hisses, violently attacks my face with claws and dashes off. He tolerates being patted on his head and body, but I have learned not to bend over him as he then strikes out. If I pat with one hand and raise the other a little to protect my face, he strikes out. I obviously quickly learned to not initiate such behaviors, and I have now copied his aloofness. In the dark or if I can't see their collars, I cannot tell them apart except by behavior. I have learned caution. I simply reach one hand toward the cat in question -- Spunky will immediately head-butt, even leaning over to do so, and Binky only sometimes allows me to pat him.
Both came to my household as 2-month-old kittens. Then Binky moved in with my daughter, husband and their three young girls when the kittens were about 9 months old. Binky became the favorite of my son-in-law, and Spunky really bonded with me. A year later, Spunky and I moved into my daughter's apartment. Spunky and Binky were immediately happy to be back together. They play roughly and happily, and they eat and sleep together. I became the only one to care for the cats. Everyone else ignored Binky, but I, the true cat mom, loved them both.
A new baby (now 15 months old) has become Binky's best friend -- though I worry about him striking out at her if she gets too close. At night, Spunky sleeps on my bed and Binky ignores me and sleeps on a chair near my bed or somewhere else in the apartment.
Is Binky jealous? Does he feel rejected? Is it fear? How should I behave to help him socialize with his human family better? Should I try to be cuddly? Will he ever head-butt me or anyone else? Is he a danger to the 15-month-old? Or maybe I should stop including head-butting in my relationship with cats? Cats and people are certainly complex! -- N.C., Hyattsville, Maryland
DEAR N.C.: First, I would say the early separation affected the socialization and human bonding of the two cats. There is an interactive process between innate temperament, early experience and later personality that can account for differences in your look-alike littermates, including one liking close human contact and the other not.
I would get a reflector collar or put a luminescent strip on one of the cat's collars so you know who is who at night, or only engage in the head-butting show of affection during daylight hours.
One safer way of initiating contact is to extend one finger toward the cat's nose to mimic the friendly nose-nose touch that cats make with each other. With shy cats, I use a long-handled brush and a feather tied to a cane that I stroke over the cat and around its face. This way, they get used to being touched and learn to trust and enjoy you, plus you won't get a clawed on the hand -- or face!
Some cats respond well with human infants because they are not afraid and seem to fully understand that the infant means no harm. But other cats become fearful, so you must keep alert and basically protect the cat from the infant, who may try to grab and hug the cat.
DEAR DR. FOX: Thank you for your helpful advice. What a pleasure to correspond with someone who understands our companion animals are not "property" or surrogate children or toys, but are complex beings who are friends with gifts and needs and wonderful and sometimes difficult histories. -- N.C.
PRAISE BEATS TREATS FOR DOG REWARD
A study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found that dogs respond more intensely to verbal or physical praise than to a food treat. The study evaluated functional MRI scans of dogs being praised and compared those to brain scans when the dogs were offered a treat and found the same or greater brain activity in the reward and decision-making centers in response to praise, information that could be used to help direct service dogs into assignments they're best suited for.
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