Cats are social animals that, in feral conditions, live in groups consisting mainly of queens and their litters. The density of the group depends partly on food resources. Because cats have been exposed to less selective breeding than dogs, there are far fewer differences in both physical and behavioral traits between cat breeds. Most cats are solitary hunters that prey on rodents and other small animals, which is likely why their coexistence with humans is so successful. Kittens usually learn to prefer to hunt prey that their mother hunted. Kittens may also develop limited food preferences based on texture and taste if not given a variety of foods when young.
Multiple generations of related females can live together, which provides for some degree of communal rearing of kittens. In free-range conditions, kittens may stay with the social group until 12–18 mo old. Sexual maturity is reached by ~6 mo of age. Queens are induced ovulators and will generally cycle seasonally (most often from winter to summer), about every 3 wk if not bred. Weaning occurs at 5–8 wk of age. Although some kittens may suckle much later, this is more likely to be social than nutritional. Early weaning of kittens leads to earlier onset of play and predation.
The socialization period of cats is much shorter than that of dogs and may begin to wane by 7–9 wk of age. During this narrow window, exposure to cats, other animals, people, and a variety of stimuli in the environment is important for prevention of fear. Kittens that are handled extensively by people at 2–7 wk of age may be friendlier, more outgoing, and have fewer problems with aggression. Hand-reared kittens may lack feline social skills and may be hyperactive in object and social play; however, if a kitten is reared with other cats in the home and provided with play sessions with wand-type toys, these problems may be prevented. Genetics, especially those of the father, also play a strong role in personality. Cats may be active, playful and aggressive, calm and sociable, or timid and shy.
Social play, including biting, chasing, and play fighting, begins around 4 wk of age, peaks at 6–9 wk, and declines at 12–14 wk. Social play may be directed at humans, especially if there are no other cats with which to play. Object play begins around 6–8 wk and peaks at ~18 wk of age. Object play simulates the predatory sequence and includes stalking, chasing, pawing, pouncing, and biting and can be directed at objects or social partners.
Cats may develop preferences for particular elimination substrates. Many cats dig before or after elimination (which may be both marking and covering urine and stools). Cats are strongly influenced by scents and may respond by marking with urine (spraying), feces, or sebaceous secretions (eg, from the cheek glands or foot pads). Urine marking, roaming, and fighting with other cats are all affected by hormones; neutering can usually prevent or resolve these behaviors.
Last full review/revision April 2012 by Gary Landsberg, BSc, DVM, MRCVS, DACVB, DECVBM-CA; Sagi Denenberg, DVM