DEAR DR. FOX: We have a 5-year-old male cat, Max. He was neutered and declawed when we adopted him from a local shelter at a year old. The shelter staff told us that he was initially adopted as a kitten, and then returned to the shelter at around 9 months because the couple could not care for him. His real personality started to show only after he was with us for almost 2 years, finally seeking out affection and allowing himself to be held or petted.
He bonded quickly with our (then 5-year-old) female Lab when we brought him home. The dog is very patient with him, and he has always snuggled and head-butted with the dog. He grooms and play-fights with our female cat, but they mostly just agree to co-exist in the same house as their humans. She's clearly the dominant of the two.
Max has always kneaded on me, one of the few things he regularly did after we got him, but it was clearly on his terms and comfort level. He's always been closer to me than my husband or our daughter -- I was the one who brought him home from the shelter.
In the past few months, Max has started kneading our dog and climbing on her back. This happens several times each evening. So far, the dog has been very patient with him and seems to tolerate the behavior, but I worry about a potential reaction from her if she gets tired of him. What leads to the kneading behavior, and what caused this increase in behavior directed toward our Lab? Should we be concerned about the frequency? -- A.C., Desloge, Missouri
DEAR A.C.: You are describing one of the behaviors of cats that is often misunderstood by cat caregivers and is essentially part of a normal, healthy cat's behavioral repertoire. You can read more in my book, "Cat Body, Cat Mind."
Some cats are more needy and knead more than others. This behavior is exacerbated when cats are weaned from the mother too soon, and it is an anxious cat's way of seeking contact comfort. Also, many cats with no anxiety or early-weaning issues will start this behavior as a self-comforting ritual on a caregiver's arm or ear lobe, blanket, cushion and in some instances on another accepting cat, and in your case, an indulgent dog. It is an instinctual behavior seen in every kitten nursing and kneading the teat area of the mother with the front paws, which can persist into adulthood, often accompanied by drooling.
It is not a behavior to discipline but to accept, as your old Labrador retriever dog does, with patient understanding, gently pushing the cat away when you have had enough. Some cats will even suck on their own tails and flanks. This can become an obsessive-compulsive activity until the cat goes to sleep; intervention tends to increase the anxiety level and makes the cat more motivated to engage in this self-comforting activity.
EMPATHY, SYMPATHY AND ETHICAL SENSIBILITY
"Empathy" and "sympathy" are two words that are often confused and regarded as synonymous. But without empathy, there can be no true sympathy. Being sympathetic is the expression of empathic concern, the consequence of empathizing with another living being, human or non-human. I regard empathy as a physiological (neuroendocrine) and psychological (emotional and cognitive) response to the perceived condition, behavior and situation of another sentient being that is witnessed and felt for. Philosopher Martin Buber termed this enjoining the "I and Thou" relationship.
We are not the only species to show empathic sensitivity, as a mother cat will respond to the cries of a lost kitten, and a dog responds to a human companion who is depressed or in pain. Such behavior, well documented in the caregiving and rescuing actions of many species, even toward members of other species, implies that we are also not the only species possessing moral and ethical sensibility.
A 1992 article in the Weekly World News, "Pet's Amazing Feat Proves Animals Can Think," documented how a dog empathized before she responded sympathetically and did the right thing for her owner, 75-year-old Jack Fyfe. She brought him water for nine days before he was discovered lying in his bed paralyzed by a stroke. The miniature white poodle soaked a towel in her water dish and passed the end of the towel to Jack to suck. He would otherwise have died from dehydration.
On Oct. 6, 2016, CBS News reported that a potent combination of brain disorders meant that Glen Schallman commonly experienced seizures, and that his 1-year-old adopted cat Blake has become attuned to the issue, biting Schallman's toes to wake him when the man experiences a dangerous nighttime seizure while sleeping, which could lead to fatal arrest of breathing. This cat had not been trained as a service animal, but he has taken on that role, even honing the ability to detect when a seizure is brewing. More details about animals' ability to empathize are given in my book "Animals and Nature First."
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox's website at DrFoxVet.net.)