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by Jean Hofve, DVM

This issue's theme of community is an interesting one when it comes to animals. We typically share our lives with dogs and cats, who are completely opposite when it comes to their social lifestyle.

Dogs are, of course, descended from that ultimate pack animal, the wolf. Wolves live in groups, with strict rules about who the leaders are (usually an alpha pair, male and female), and what privileges belong to each subservient animal. Discipline and boundaries are rigourously enforced—although not in the way that many old-fashioned dog trainers claim. For the most part, it is a cooperative venture; the alpha makes his position clear by surprisingly gentle means—mainly posture and expression—and the lower-ranked wolf voluntarily offers submission.

Cats, on the other hand, are (except for lions) strictly solitary. While a single male and female will come together for breeding purposes (that darned survival of the species thing again!), once that is accomplished, they go their separate ways, and the female raises the kittens alone.

It's funny how we humans have created a living situation for most pet dogs and cats that's entirely the opposite of nature. According to statistics, most people who have a dog have only one dog, and most people who have a cat have multiple cats. It's a tribute to the mental and emotional flexibility of our animal friends that they've managed to deal with, if not thrive in, such odd circumstances.

I'm not forgetting the other species who commonly co-exist with humans. Birds, at least the species we find to be amiable pets, are flock animals. They are never far from others of their kind, and keep a running (or flying) conversation with each other as they forage. Horses, too, are herd animals, and often become upset when they are separated from their herd-mates.

One of the traits that leads to a successful partnership with humans is, indeed, that pack-flock-herd mentality. It allows deep bonds to be formed between humans and animals, building a relationship of love and trust.

All of which makes the cat very unusual. Despite being generally anti-social and highly territorial, cats are somehow able to adapt to living with other cats, and even other species. In a high-density area, homeless and feral cats will voluntarily form colonies in which females will take care of each others' kittens. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a "critical mass" above which territorial issues are likely to arise—particularly urine marking. For the average household, that number is around 5; although multiple floors, lots of vertical space, interactive play, and other modifications can make even a small space habitable by quite a few cats.

It does seem to be a sort of biological imperative to live within a community; perhaps that helps our animal companions deal with the tremendously complex task of getting along with humans and other creatures. Biologist Bruce Lipton, in his fascinating book, Biology of Belief, makes the case for this when he says, "We need to move beyond Darwinian Theory, which stresses the importance of individuals, to one that stresses the importance of the community… evolution is more dependent on the interaction among species than it is on the interaction of individuals within a species. Evolution becomes a matter of the survival of the fittest groups rather than the survival of the fittest individuals."

This is a principle that animals obviously know very well, and carry out instinctively, yet one that we humans appear to have forgotten, overshadowed by fear and greed. Once again, our animal friends are here to show the way by demonstrating how to apply their (and our) innate wisdom in order to live the way Nature intended: in harmony and community.

Dr. Jean Hofve recently retired from holistic veterinary practice, but still writes and consults on holistic health and nutrition. She is a Medicine Woman of the Mountain Wind Lodge Nemenhah Band and Native American Traditional Organization (Oklevueha Native American Church of Sanpete). She founded SpiritEssence in 1995, which remains the only line of essence formulas for animals created by a veterinarian. For more information on pet health, nutrition, and behaviour, please visit the free article library at www.littlebigcat.com.

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