As humans, most of us have an inbuilt need for company. We tend to gather in groups of at least two people, and from individual friendships through to the whole of society, we understand the importance of social contact for our physical and mental health. This Valentine’s Day I’m sure many of you will be celebrating your relationships. Our pets are quite different. Although some species, like dogs, enjoy company, others do not. Is your pet solitary or social?
Domestic dogs are descended from pack-dwellers, and as such they like to have company. Canine packs would usually be family groups, and they’re fairly stable – they would rarely have new adults added, although pups, of course, will be born and grow up. Wild dogs have distinct but fluid social hierarchies – ‘dominance theory’ of a single Alpha has been proven to be simplistic and incorrect. Instead, parents control their young and when they’re old enough to be members of society, there’s no fight to be ‘top dog’. Due to this complex social structure and need to hunt as a group, dogs have evolved to communicate well with one another. Where arguments occur, dogs have many methods of ‘apologising’ and ‘downplaying’ the argument in order to reduce the risk of a fight that may potentially injure.
Our pet dogs, today, are much the same. They like company, although they have evolved to be satisfied with human company as well as or instead of canine company. They are excellent communicators and have evolved ways of making sure they’re understood – even by us dumb humans! Of course, not all dogs are hugely sociable, just as not all humans like large groups. But all dogs have the ability to bond. So, does a dog need another dog to be happy? Whilst most dogs will enjoy being in a group, this isn’t thought to be necessary for their welfare as long as they receive lots of attention and interaction from humans.
Sociable or solitary? Sociable!
Cats are the total opposite to dogs in so many ways. Almost all species of wild feline are solitary – the exception being lions. They live, hunt, feed and thrive on their own, although they do of course come together to mate. They are usually very territorial, but use scent and pheromone signalling to ensure there are no mistakes over territory that might cause an argument without actually having to contact one another. Fights are rare – on the whole, wild cats choose to run and hide, and signal from a safe distance, rather than fight.
Our domestic cats, similarly, tend not to enjoy close contact with other adult cats. Although some cats manage to live as a ‘bonded pair’, and can in fact become quite attached to their partner, the vast majority of cats avoid one another. Cats living in the same house can usually cope by ‘timesharing’ important resources, like a treasured bed or the food bowl. When there aren’t enough resources to go around – like when one litter tray is shared between three cats – signs of stress will start to appear. Since they’re relying on communication abilities of the wild cat, visual and audible stress cues such as hissing, fighting and biting rarely occur in the house – it’s far more likely that they’ll argue using scents, subtle glares at one another and ‘blocking’ of resources by sitting in a doorway. These signs often go unnoticed by owners and it isn’t until one of the cats becomes ill due to chronic stress that the upset is recognised.
Sociable or solitary? Solitary!
Domesticated rabbits are very closely related to the European wild rabbits you see hopping around in the fields. They live in large groups of up to 20 individuals, but tend to pair up within that larger society. They’re very hierarchical, with every rabbit knowing his or her place within society. Rabbits mainly communicate using scent and pheromones- their bodies have many scent glands that they can use to designate safe spaces, toilet areas, social status and friends. They rarely use body language or sound to communicate, except for one notable exception – the foot stomp. Rabbits stomp a high foot to indicate alarm – it’s a great alarm signal as it can be easily heard and felt by rabbits in the warrens as well as those nearby on the surface.
Our domesticated rabbits can be kept in larger groups, but most are happiest in bonded pairs. Time should be taken to ensure that the rabbits have bonded before they are allowed contact with one another, as unfamiliar rabbits or rabbits that don’t ‘like’ each other can quickly injure one another! Despite this risk, the RSPCA and Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund both advise that rabbits should be kept in neutered, bonded pairs for their welfare. ‘Normal’ bonding does take some time and will generally involve some nibbling and gentle biting to establish the hierarchy- if you are in any doubt whether your rabbits are getting on, it’s a good idea to contact a rabbit-friendly vet for advice.
Sociable or solitary? Sociable!