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Part 2: Bengals, Throwbacks, Labradors, and Time!

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Part I: A Combination of Heredity and Environment…with the Emphasis on Heredity


Nothing compares to having a loving, friendly, kitten to place. Imagine only having to worry about the people you are placing him with—you know the kitten will be alright if you do a halfway decent job on your part. Or think of it from the owner’s point of view; how many times have you heard, “My Bengal is friendly but he doesn’t like to be picked up?” How many times have you heard, “My Bengal runs and hides when people come into the house—even friends?”


Three years ago I started working on the problem, because the Bengal can be the friendliest of cats. The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behavior,a contains discussions and examinations of studies about nature and nurture, or as I prefer to think it, heredity and environment. My current thinking on friendliness was based largely, though not entirely, on the studies presented in the book.


Heredity


The reason this post has “A Combination of Heredity and Environment…with the Emphasis on Heredity” as a subhead is that heredity is the bottom line. For instance, your genes give you a certain maximum height; a bad environment can make you shorter but never taller. Your genes give you a certain maximum intelligence; your environment can make you as smart as your genetics will let you go but never more. And so it seems to be with cats—the effect of “friendliness” is first of all genetic, and only modified by environment!b


Three friendly bengal breeders (two queens with a stud in the middle) who pass their genetic tendancy for friendliness on to their kittens. (Here they are having a "Group Groom.")

The Domestic Cat describes research and studies that have been done regarding genetics and friendliness. After describing the studies, conclusions or theories may or may not be made, based on the parameters of each individual study. These studies, as The Domestic Cat says, are “a first attempt to disentangle the interactive effects of genetic and environmental factors on [feline] behavioral characteristics.”


As expected, the studies show the friendliness of the mother has an effect on the friendliness of the kittens (though it is hard to say from the report given of the studies whether this is genetic, environmental, or a combination of both). However (and a total surprise to me!), the studies show that the father has an effect on the friendliness of his kittens—even when the kittens have never come in contact with him! (For example, if the queen had had stud service at another cattery and returned home before giving birth.) This shows a clear basis for the inheritance of friendliness based on inheritance, not environment—apparently something he is passing along in his genes makes his offspring friendlier (or, as The Domestic Cat says, “it is likely that genetic factors mediated this effect”).


If it is true of the father, it also seems that friendliness is likely to be (at least partly) genetic in the case of the mother as well; there just hasn’t been a way to study it clearly, as there has been in males. Certainly in my experience, breeding a friendly stud to an unfriendly queen, or a friendly queen to an unfriendly stud, produces the same spread among their kittens, ranging from moderately friendly to very unfriendly. If you think about it, you will probably realize from your own program that certain combinations of stud and queen have more friendly kittens than different combinations of stud and queen.


Based on these studies and experience, it seems apparent to me that the cats with the highest genetic level of friendliness are those that are the offspring of two friendly cats. This is the theory I am applying at the moment to my breeding program.


Environment


This kitten is the offspring of two genetically friendly cats. She has only been socialized a few minutes each day, but her heredity makes her perfectly at home with vets or anyone else.

The Domestic Cat also discusses environmental socialization (by “socialization” I mean friendliness to humans). A number of studies have shown that 2–7 weeks of age is the sensitive period for socialization to humans for cats. Socialization at a younger age has little effect and socialization at an older age has a limited effect, though of course this is somewhat dependant on the traits of the specific kitten (e.g., if it’s a slow developer or a fast developer).


In addition, each kitten needs to be handled 30–40 minutes per day. Again “there seems to be an upper limit of about an hour per day beyond which further handling no longer produces dramatic effects.” Also, if the mother is present and has been socialized to humans, her “calm presence may reduce the kitten’s anxiety (build up its confidence), allowing exploration of the environment…and through this, may actually facilitate establishment of a relationship between the kitten and human.” [Quotes are from The Domestic Cat.]


I started socializing my kittens in accordance with these principles in 2003 or thereabouts, and in doing so I began to produce an overall more friendly, but somewhat mixed, bunch of kittens. However, now that I have started breeding only genetically friendly cats, the kittens have been (almost) perfectly friendly. This method of socialization works very well as a second tier to heredity to produce friendly kittens.


An additional advantage of using heredity and environment together is that I don’t have to spend as much time socializing kittens. In fact, I can socialize up to six kittens at once (rather than spending 30–40 minutes per day per kitten). Some days I don’t do much more than say “hi” to the kittens and they still turn out great. The heredity takes care of a lot of socialization!


Results So Far


Having two friendly parents means that the socialiation period takes less time and effort (for instance, each kitten requires much less than 30-40 minutes of interaction per day). Here are three kittens playing with my legs (ouch!).

I said earlier that I have been working on this problem, and as anyone who has gotten a cat from me lately can attest, (I think!) I have it basically solved. I have done this by making it a requirement that any cat I add to my breeding program is friendly, and then doing supplemental socializing.


How do I know if a stud or queen I’m thinking of adding to my program is friendly? After all, “friendly” is a term that means different things to different people. For example, nearly all breeders say their cats are friendly, and perhaps they are friendly to them, but they may run and hide from someone else, they may have problems being held… I try to look for the cats that are demonstrably friendly.


For friends, I may know their cats and which are suitably friendly. If I don’t know a breeder’s cats personally, I ask for specific pictures. If a breeder can send me pictures of both the adult parents of a prospective breeder kitten being held calmly by a relative stranger(s)—a vet tech, for instance—I accept that it’s truly friendly and not just friendly with its breeder. (They have to be pictures of the adult parents, not of the prospective breeder kitten, because anyone can forcibly hold a kitten.)


This cat might possibily be one that is demonstrably friendly. Numerous show cats may have the potential, although the best way to tell is pictures of the parents.

Over time, I’ve become very hard line about this. Friendliness has become the first quality I look for in a cat, and if the cat doesn’t pass I look elsewhere. If a cat is not demonstrably friendly, it does not become part of my breeding program. Period. Remember, if the theory is (as I currently believe) that a cat can never be socialized past what its genetics allow, and if the genetics are bad for friendliness, you can never make up for that. The cat will continue to have kittens that are difficult to socialize—even if just occasionally. “Occasionally” is just too much—even one kitten is too much!


I have turned over all my breeders except one now, replacing those that were not demonstrably friendly with those that are, and that “old style” cat is ready to be spayed and petted out. I’ve made several mistakes along the way. For instance, two years ago I bought a queen who was just not friendly enough. I had to spay her and place her in a home before she ever had her first litter. Such mistakes are a little expensive, but I feel that in the long run they are a lot less expensive than producing kittens that are hard to place because of unfriendliness.


The selection of cats on the basis of “Friendliness First” may sound as though it narrows my choice of bloodlines disastrously, but not so! There are many cats, some from the most valued lines in existence, that meet this definition of demonstrably friendly. In fact, some of the cats that win the highest awards at shows meet this definition because to be a good show cat often means that the cat has a demonstrably friendly personality.


So I’m not losing a thing and I’m gaining cats that are wonderful in their sweetness as well as their looks. “Friendly animals are relatively easy to place permanently,” as The Domestic Cat says, but more importantly, superior friendliness is good for the breed in general. It will make a difference—maybe THE difference— in how our breed is viewed years from now. All it takes is a pair of demonstrably friendly parents and some socialization.


BUT!


This kitten's father (shown) and mother have both passed on their friendliness to the kitten. If she becomes a breeder, she will pass on her half of the genetic tendancy to her offpring, and they will pass on what they inherit from her and their father, and so on through the generations.

If you have one (or none!) demonstrably friendly adults, the kittens will require the maximum socialization and still there will be unfriendly kittens. But sometimes, no matter how demonstrably friendly the parents and and even if you socialize to the limits, you’ll get an unfriendly Bengal. Watch this blog for “The Friendly Bengal, Part 2: Bengals, Throwbacks, Labradors, and Time!”


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a The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behavior, second edition, Ed. Dennis Turner and Patrick Bateson, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

b Genetics and environment are interwoven in vastly subtle ways, making it difficult to say a trait is either hereditary or environmental. This post is my view of friendliness in cats; others may have different views.

Copyright March 2011 by Nancy Prince. All rights reserved.

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The Father and His Kittens in a Small Cattery

Father and Son

A father and son greet each other. Notice that the kitten is totally unafraid.


About 15 years ago I was told by a friend who’s a feline behaviorist that much of what I “knew” about cats when I was growing up was not fact at all. Instead, it was a mix of truth and lots of misinformation—extrapolations from canine studies, unscientific or flawed “research,” old wives tales and myths, anecdotal observations, and even some pure bunk. It was a second shock to realize that although modern research was making up ground as quickly as it could, there were, and still are, many aspects of cat life that we know very little about. It appears that the relationship of stud cats to their kittens is one of those areas.

Research

I left childhood with the vague idea that male cats would kill or were dangerous to kittens. But it appears from the behavior of my own studs that I was wrong!

This issue of how male cats behave towards their kittens is one of those topics that hasn’t really been studied, at least in the research I’m familiar with. The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behavior,a has studies of social patterns among cats, but makes only two off-hand comments on the topic:

  • “The young also recognize other adults [besides the mother] in their own group and readily accept care from them” (page 13)
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  • “In the absence of their mother, kittens of 12 weeks will suckle from the teats of intact adult males” (page 140)

However, the facts about males taking care of kittens (at least, their own) are given more support by such websites as Suite 101,b which says:

“Male cats, though more inclined to ignore their kittens, may also choose to be active participants in raising them. Males have been observed bringing food for the mother and young and defending them against people and other animals. Some males even take over mothering duties if the kittens are orphaned or the mother is incompetent.”

This seems to be the case with stud cats in a small cattery.

The Accident

My stud and my queens live in my house, going where they want to go. The exception was that when a queen gave birth I used to keep her and her kittens in a room where they wouldn’t see another cat until the kittens were 10 weeks old. One afternoon, after checking the nest of a six-day-old litter, I exited that room and did some housework. About three hours later I went in the nesting room to check on the kittens again. I took hold of the nesting box to drag it over to me. It didn’t budge. I tried again—even though I expected the queen to be in it, the nesting box was incredibly heavy. I turned on my flashlight and shone it in the nest…and was greeted by the sleepy eyes of my 16-pound stud. He and the queen were both curled up in the nest and the kittens were sprawled all over them, asleep.

Father pottying kitten.

This father potties one of his kittens.

I sat quietly and watched. Eventually the queen came out, stretched, and went off to the litter box. The male started nosing around the kittens, selected one, and pottied it! Then he settled back down and slept some more. And I settled back and began to learn.

Lessons

Studs typically sleep with mother and kittens, potty the kittens, groom the kittens, play with the kittens when they get old enough, and even protect them. (Try putting eye ointment in a vocal kitten’s eye, and the queen isn’t the only one who’ll come to be sure the kitten is alright!) I have even seen a male bring mouthfuls of food and put them on the ground in front of a kitten that was too small to reach the feeding station! Also I routinely see males standing back and letting the queen and weaning kittens eat first. On two occasions I have seen a male pick up a kitten by the scruff (just like the mother does) and carry it back to the nest.

Here the kittens are sacked out on the father for some much-needed rest. The father desultorily licks one of them.

Nervous or overwhelmed queens can really benefit from a stud’s help. The queen may have too many kittens or otherwise be having difficulty keeping the kittens in line, but with the stud’s assistance there is typically enough parenting to go around. In fact, the stud can do everything except supply milk—but you can do that, right? What you can’t do is cuddle them 20 hours out of 24, be ready to potty them constantly, and give them the 24-hour comfort and security they need. Even if the male just sleeps with the kittens when mom wants some rest it can be a big help. I find it particularly useful to have two adult cats playing with the kittens at once, and playtime is done in about half the time it normally takes.

I would like to say that kittens who are exposed to their father in a parenting role when they are little are friendlier than kittens who don’t know their father in this way. It makes logical sense that it would be so, as it means they are exposed to more adults at a young age. However, it is hard to judge how these kittens would compare to others who were not raised by two cats, and degrees of friendliness with humans may vary depending upon the individual person the kitten/cat is in contact with. Also, I don’t feel that my small cattery produces enough kittens/cats to be a large enough sample for cats in general, or even just Bengal cats. But it may be that kittens raised with their father may be a little better adjusted…I just don’t know for sure!

Considerations

I’m on my third stud since the day I discovered one in the nesting box,c and I fully expect that the studs I had previously would also have done some parenting…I just didn’t know to try it. Here are some thoughts and things I’ve learned.

  • Except for pottying, which seems to be ongoing behavior, the male seems to become more involved with the kittens as they age.
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  • Fathers are particularly useful when the mother cat has too many kittens or health issues that impact her ability to care for the kittens herself. In addition, if I had a litter whose mother had died, the father would definitely be part of their raising.
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  • Be sure to separate the male from the queen and her litter for about a week if the queen goes into heat after she’s basically stopped nursing the kittens (unless you want to get her pregnant right away).
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    This kitten is about to find his playtime take off to a new level when he pounces on his father's rear end.

  • The Domestic Cat makes a strong delineation between the behavior of the outsider male, who lurks around a feral cat colony hoping to steal food or jump a female, and the male that is a (more or less) regular member of the colony. The outsider male, sneaking around the “extended family group” that is the colony, is the dangerous one. Even so, even the dangerous outsider male rarely kills kittens. When you have cats in a cattery, feral conditions are not present. The cats have enough food and the male is put with the female when she is in heat, and in fact may be her companion for months or years at a time. There are no outsider males, unless the queen is sent to another cattery to be bred or unless the cattery is a large one, with perhaps four or more males and a multitude of females. As long as the queen is a companion of the male, he should be at least indifferent to the kittens and probably an active parent.
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  • To be on the safe side, I let the male stay with the queen up to the time she delivers, then let her have three to seven days alone with the kittens—until the kittens are feisty enough to make themselves heard if the male accidentally lays down on them. I think this could happen by accident with a very young kitten.

Things I haven’t tried (yet) are having a stud who is not the father of the litter take care of the kittens and having a male help two queens who are cooperatively raising their litters. I also haven’t tried a neutered male in this situation.

I hope that if you have some thoughts on this or some experience of your own with studs involved in raising litters you’ll share them!

Mother, Father, and Kittens

The mother, on the left, and the father on the right with the kittens, both help groom the kittens.


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a The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behavior, second edition, Ed. Dennis Turner and Patrick Bateson, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

b http://www.suite101.com/content/tom-cats-and-kittens-a122729

cLakewood Odyssey was here for a year’s swap with PrinceRoyal Hunter, my wonderful Gogees Spellbinder of PrinceRoyal was here for five years, and now it’s JuJuKats Johnny Kool of PrinceRoyal. All of them are wonderful fathers.

Note: This post is not about Bengals that are three generations or less from the Asian Lepoard Cat (e.g., early generation cats).
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This site (text and images) is © copyright January 2011 by Nancy Prince, PrinceRoyal Bengals. All rights reserved.

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