|Heather is no longer a year-old kitten, nor miffed because her sister got to pose first. Apart from that, this is what she looks like.|
Yesterday was a Tuesday--Tortie Tuesday!--and Heather, a three-colored cat with "tortoise-shell" or "tortie" (or "heathered") fur above, typed her first message. It was something like "6666666666byyy666666666666." It looked like what happens when a cat stands still on a keyboard...but as Heather curled herself into a figure 6 on my lap I realized that she did have something to tell us: If you're blessed with the chance to do so, it's nice to live with social cats "by sixes."
If you live with normal cats, two is a good number. For social cats, two is the minimum. (When I lived with our Founding Queen, Black Magic, I thought one cat was more than I wanted the responsibility of "owning." Magic thought otherwise, and was constantly adopting her own pets--kittens, possums, wild animals...since becoming more aware of the strangely wonderful personalities of social cats, I think she must have been frustrated by my simple-minded, human-centric assumption that "all cats would prefer to be alone with you-their-human-godparent.")
I found a song running through my head, a lyric Robert Westall may have found or written as an alternate version of "Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme"...it appears in a work of conceptual fiction that features an especially adorable fictional tortoiseshell cat:
"First there was one, and then there were two,
Three, and six, and then there were nine..."
I've lived with social cats in each of those numbers.
One is not a good number for social cats. They're wonderful pets, but one of the wonderful things about them is that they would really rather have a friend who thinks the way they do--which is no more possible for a human than it is for a normal cat. They'll adopt normal cats or other animals as pets. It's just not the same.
Two is an acceptable number for social cats. If they're not closely related by birth, you'll be lucky to find two at the same time, and they'll probably be happier than most of the social cats in this world. However, if anything happens to one of them, you'll be constantly aware that the surviving social cat is missing something nature intended it to enjoy.
Three seems to be a good number for social cats who hunt and/or rear kittens as a family. They can take turns playing different roles in the social cat family, as Mackerel and Polly and their brother did; they can settle into specialized roles based on different talents, as Heather and Irene and Ivy did; they may even take turns being "best friends" and excluding one cat, while at the same time staying close and working as a team, as Mogwai and Grayzel and Bisquit did.
Six may well be an optimal number for a social cat family. It worked for Mac, Polly, Mogwai, Grayzel, Bisquit, and Steelgray. It worked for the family in which Heather was a kitten, Grayzel, Candice, Heather, Irene, Ivy, and Little Mo. It worked for the family at the Cat Sanctuary this time last year, Heather, Irene, Sisawat, Tickle, Elmo, and Inky. Six social cats go through a lot of kibble and litter but they seem to enjoy each other's company. As a human I'm not sure whether a family of six cats have specific roles for each individual cat to play, but each individual seems to be loved and missed.
Nine social cats seem to get along with one another just fine, but whenever we've reached that level of cat population density I've felt that there were just a few cats too many...and the cats have seemed to agree that, whenever a few of them found homes of their own, that was a good thing.
|Identifying documentation of Heather's distinctive right paw.|
"Stop typing and pay attention," Heather nonverbally said, pinning my hand under her thumb, or thumbs. She has double "thumbs" on both forepaws.
|Identifying documentation of Heather's distinctive left paw. (Yes, that's what's called a "heatherknit" blanket...)|
"Do you mean to say there should be six cats in this family?" I asked Heather. "Do you miss Elmo, Sisawat, Irene, and Inky?"
"Especially Irene," Heather purred. Elmo and Sisawat chose to adopt a human of their own, who lives near enough to the Cat Sanctuary that they can walk home for occasional visits--and they do. Inky, who was not born into a social cat family, fitted into my cat family better than I expected but really wanted a lap of her own, too, all along, and got one; scheduled to move out after being spayed, she actually moved out a few hours after the spaying schedule was confirmed. But Irene, having finally succeeded in rearing a kitten who survived long enough to start hunting on its own, met with an accident while trying to visit her "grown-up" daughter.
Irene's whole problem was that she was such a "good," sweet, docile, affectionate little homebody that she made a lot of typical kitten mistakes only as an adult cat, only after Ivy's demise. She was five years old before she even learned how to draw in her ears and use her paws to slip a can off her head, for pity's sake. Irene and Heather often napped in a ying-yang position, one cat's head on the other's flank, and nursed their kittens in that position. Now that Irene's gone, Heather has started curling herself up into the tightest possible ball, that figure-6 position with her head pillowed on her hind feet and her long tail curled down over her (part of a cat's body that corresponds to the shoulderblades of a human or the withers of a horse), trying to recapture the warmth to which she's always been accustomed. It's just not the same.
Tickle is Heather's son; he never was my favorite kitten but he always seemed to be hers, and she still has him for company, but a female cat in early middle age and a male in late adolescence just aren't functioning at the same rhythm. Heather is still a long way from being one of those senior cats who snooze twenty or more hours out of twenty-four; she's also a long way past being a kitten who stays awake, or almost awake, for most of the day. Heather often seeks me out, these days, for the kind of grooming and snooze-companionship she used to get from Irene and Ivy. We both know I'm a poor substitute for either one of them.
"Should there be two, or three, or six cats?" I restated the question.
"I'll take what I can get," Heather purred. "Six was a good number."
"There is a Cat Sanctuary, just beyond a cat's walking range from here," I said, "where one of the cats has been telling me she wants to meet Tickle for about a year. I don't know whether they're social cats exactly, but they're certainly clever and well-behaved cats. It's that house's turn to have too many cats. What would you say to a cat-daughter-in-law?"
"Like Inky?" Heather nonverbally said. "You know how much I put up with from that spoiled brat with her sickly babies and her poisonous mood swings. She'd order me off my own porch. I'd go out hunting, bring something back, let her share it. Did she ever learn anything from my example? Hah. I said, whatever, as long as my son was happy."
"Even for social cats it's unusual for a male to stay with just one female all through a year," I noted. "Inky was not exactly an ordinary cat, even if she wasn't quite as special as youall."
"At least she had enough sense not to try to have kittens twice," Heather yawned. "How would I know whether a cat-daughter-in-law would be as nice as Ivy, or worse than Inky? Even with my own kittens we never know how they're going to turn out. We'll just have to wait and see."