Size matters - the vulnerability of the cat in a human world - photo by fofurasfelinas (Flickr)
Michele, a visitor to this website, reminded me of something that is nearly always forgotten; cats live in a land of giants. How does this affect cat behavior or indeed our behavior? In the domestic cat/human relationship, humans are a kind of surrogate mother. The cat looks to us for all the things that a mother cat provides her kittens.
But as a mother replacement we are rather large aren't we. How does this feel for the cat? I would argue that it creates what I would term a "default behavioral position" that is a little more defensive than neutral. I think it is fair to say that this is the most likely outcome.
If you throw into the equation that the domestic cat has a wildcat simmering away just below the surface, you have behavior that tends towards the wary. Of course a major factor in relation to cat behavior is the individual cat's personality and some cats will be naturally very confident no matter our relatively large size. This kind of cat might be for example the Bengal cat as the wildcat ancestor is very self-possessed (assured) cats.
But looking at the wild cats (and they give us some leads as to how a domestic cat is likely to behave), we know that they avoid people and other large competitors for the sake of self preservation. For instance the leopard will become nocturnal in its activities where there is a lot of human activity or where there are superior competitors (tiger). The wild cat is instinctively fearful of the human.
The wild cat avoids conflicts that it will lose. The domestic cat has a de-tuned wild cat personality. If for example I meet a domestic cat in a public place (cats in the UK are often let out) the cat will usually (but not always) keep a distance and probably slink away to observe at a distance.
In a domestic cat to human encounter outside the cat's home where the parties don't know each other the likely outcome is that the cat will be wary. I think this is a demonstration of the cat's default behavioral position towards us, the top predator on the planet.
This default position is normally neutralised at home because of the close mother/kitten relationship that we have with our cats (in a household suitable for a cat). But if the balance is disturbed by unexpected activities or unfamiliar visitors the wariness can be seen again.
This may also explain why some people find the domestic cat aloof or a bit stand offish. It is not aloofness but simply natural bahaviour that should be expected as cats live in a land of giants.
A classic behavioral trait that shows how unnaturally big we are in relation to the domestic cat is when a cat sits up on its hind legs and head butts our lowered hand when greeting us. Normally this would be head to head at eye level.
In fact size matters in human to human relationships too under a wide range of circumstances. For instance in the boardroom of big companies all other things being equal a big man will, on average, beat a little one.
I think it is worth reminding ourselves of the fact that cats live in a land of giants as it might mean that we are more gentle towards our cat and more aware of the potential for a cat to be frightened. Humankind's propensity to want to control and dominate has no place in the domestic cat's life and our vastly superior size will tend sometimes to encourage us to be arrogant towards our vulnerable friend.