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Cat Sense: How Our Actions Affect Feline Behavior


The domestic cat started as an animal that was solitary, territorial, and loved to roam and hunt. Now we want them to stay at home and live in close quarters with whomever we choose to be part of their family.

In his book Cat Sense, John Bradshaw says cats have adapted surprisingly well, but we could help them out a lot by understanding them better. We talked to him about what’s behind some elements of cat behavior that we’ve all noticed, as well as some ways to help them fit into our lives more seamlessly.

Cats and Play

Q: If we keep cats indoors where they can’t roam and hunt, they need to have something else to do. You’ve done research about how cats play. What’s important to a cat about a toy?

A: By examining the things that cats like to play with, we came to the conclusion that what’s going on in their heads is about hunting. The things they like to play with resemble mice or small birds. [Toys] don’t have to be mouse-shaped — some of the toys were shaped like a hairy spider, and although some owners may find them a little bit repellent, they seemed to work very well as far as the cats were concerned. But they do need to be that kind of size.

Cats play in a way that uses all the same things they do when they’re hunting — they bite, they claw, they clutch the toy to their belly, they try to bite its neck if they can find something on the toy that reminds them of a neck.

They also play more intensively when they’re hungry, just before mealtime, than afterwards. Once they’ve eaten, they tend to go to sleep and aren’t interested in toys. If they were playing, in the sense that a human child would play, it would be the other way around. Children don’t play very intensively when they’re hungry, and they will play contentedly after they’ve eaten.

Q: Your research also showed that they lose interest in a toy fairly quickly, which is something that can discourage cat owners.

A: We think that is also connected with hunting. If you’re hunting something and it’s not changing in any way, either it’s not alive or it’s quite good at resisting your attack, so the best thing to do at that point is to give up.

Q: So it’s no use to just toss a bunch of toys around the house and leave them there.

A: What we’ve tried with some success with indoor cats is to keep a boxful of toys away from the cats and only allow them access to two or three of them on any particular day.

And the other thing that we’ve done a lot of work on that is obvious to people who love cats is that they love movement. Their eyes are wired to the brain in a different way, so they are much, much more sensitive to movement in the periphery of their vision.

We think it’s an adaptation for hunting. They might be looking in slightly the wrong direction when a mouse is hiding, and they’re able to pick up the slightest movement that would give that mouse away. That is why a hard plastic ball that makes noise popping across the floor will really interest cats. The sound and unpredictable movements are things that really turn cats on and get them interested. It’s why in the fall many cats will play with dead leaves.

It’s not the leaves that are exciting in themselves — it’s the way they move in the wind that gets the cats going.

You, the owner, can simulate the movement of prey — moving the toy around and getting the cat interested in it, and it’s just a fun thing to do with your cat.

Q: What about getting another cat to keep your cat entertained?

A: Cats have actually come quite a long way from their solitary, territorial, aggressive ancestors considering the amount of time they’ve had — just a few thousand years — in evolutionary terms the blink of an eye. But they’re still territorial, and they’re still lacking in many of the complex social graces that dogs have.

So if you want two cats, you have to work at it. Cat society is based around family groups and around long, long experience of each other. It takes a long time for cats to trust each other and a very short time for it to go the other way.

I suspect there aren’t many cats that, if they could tell you, would say, “Please would you get me another cat?” But they can benefit from the company of other cats, especially if they are going to be left alone a lot of the time. When you have two cats that get on well, they not only spend time together, but they tend to spend rather less time with their owners. So having another cat there is satisfying their need for company.

So there are benefits to the cat as well as to the owner, but the thing needs to be planned very carefully, as I describe in the book.

Q: Like other social animals, cats communicate with body language. One thing that’s interesting is how they use their tails.

A: When two cats see each other from a distance, if one raises its tail and the other raises its tail and they point them straight up at the sky, that means, essentially, that they are well disposed toward one another.

Then sometimes they’ll approach each other, or one will stand still and the other will come up to it. Then they will sit down or lie down close to one another and start grooming one another, or they may do this rubbing ritual which takes a number of different forms.

Q: And they do this to us as well, right?

A: They’ll raise their tail and will come and twine around your legs and rub against your ankles. Some will do exactly the same thing on a nearby piece of furniture — a chair leg or table leg that’s nearest to you. It’s possibly the fact that we’re not behaving like a cat back to them at that point, so sometimes they redirect it toward furniture.

But they still go on doing it, so it still seems to be very important to them as an indicator that they think we are in control. With two cats, the first one to do the tail raising is usually the smaller or younger of the two individuals. That’s an indication that it has a greater need to make some gesture and get a response back before it is safe to approach. So I think it’s acknowledging that you’re the one that’s in control of the food and everything else really in their lives and that they are living in your space.

Q: This ritual also helps us understand something very basic, which is: What’s the right way to pet a cat?

A: Sometimes if you’re sitting down, a cat will approach from across the room with the tail up. And they won’t rub on you — they will jump up and start licking your hand. They may be expecting you to groom them at that point. People may call it stroking, but as far as the cat’s concerned, it’s a kind of grooming.

The stroking they like best is on exactly the same places on the body that cats groom each other. They like it on the back of their head, around their ears and on the side of their necks. They dislike it on the flanks and toward the back. Quite a lot of cats, if you start stroking their back, will turn around and snap, or get up and go out. Cats very rarely groom each other at that point, and I think to them it’s slightly threatening.

Q: You argue that we need to pay more attention to how we raise a young cat — more the way we approach raising a puppy.

A: A kitten needs to have some friendly contact with people before it’s 8 weeks of age. If it doesn’t, then it’s going to be frightened of people and probably feral. It needs to happen a lot earlier in a kitten’s life than a puppy’s life.

But other research we’ve done says that once that’s been achieved, cats do go on learning a great deal during the first year of their lives about how to interact with us. We know that cats’ personalities change over the first year, and by the time they get to a year old, they don’t resemble the kind of cat they were when they were 8 or 10 weeks old.

So there’s a lot of adaptation going on, and they are learning a lot about their new owners. That points to not just allowing [the cat’s socialization] to happen in a somewhat random way but actually training young cats to adapt [to the life the owners want the cats to have].

Q: In contrast to dogs, most people never think about training their cat. Why do you think it’s important for this to change?

A: People tend to take on cats as being the easy choice; you don’t have to train them. But we are asking quite a lot of our cats nowadays. Once we get a cat, we want that cat to fit in with us. I think 50 or 60 years ago, if people found that a cat didn’t work, they’d just let it wander off and get another one and no one would think any worse of them for doing that, because cats were regarded as more interchangeable.

Nowadays we have a very strong personal relationship with a cat, so we need to put some work in to build that relationship. There are some very simple things you can do to make the cat’s life happier and to make the relationship stronger, too.

I’m not talking about creating a performing cat, but teaching the cat about the things that are going to happen to it in its life, like teaching it that the cat carrier is a nice place to go into. So many cats hate the cat carrier — whereas you get a cardboard carton from the store and empty it and put it on the floor and the next thing you know you turn around and the cat’s inside it. They actually love to explore and sit and go into and rest in confined spaces. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a cat carrier — it’s just that it’s associated with unpredictable events as far as the cat’s concerned.

If you train the cat that the carrier is a really good place to go — starting out by just putting it on the floor and putting some tasty food inside, gradually teaching the cat that the door being shut doesn’t mean the end of the world — it will make the cat’s life and yours much more stress-free.

By Linda Lombardi | provided by


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