Understanding Cat Behavior:
Why Does My Cat ... ?

by Gary Le Mon

Cat looking in mirror

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who love cats and those who just don't understand them. 

Giving a comfortable home to a cat is one of the most fulfilling things you can do in life. As French writer Anatole France said, "Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened."

But to receive all the benefits that sharing your life with these wonderful creatures can bring, it is helpful to understand a cat's nature and why it behaves in the way it does.

An old proverb may help us frame a cat’s perspective on the world: "In cat's eyes, all things belong to cats." It has also been said that "Thousands of years ago, cats were worshipped as gods, and cats have never forgotten this."

Cats can be trained, but this is no job for lightweights. Unlike dogs, they don't easily accept being owned. You cannot possess a cat as it will retain a streak of individuality throughout the whole of its life. Remember, to a dog you’re family, but to a cat you’re staff.

Why cats do what they do

Cats are experts at their own comfort. They always seem to be searching for food or for a warm and secure place to curl up and go to sleep. They have enormous curiosity and love to explore. They have an innate interest in the world and what it contains. For example, a cat will try to climb on to anything it can reach.

Cats are natural predators, but hunting actions aren't completely instinctive. Their cousins (species of wild cats) are natural hunters. But a domestic cat needs to learn hunting skills from its mother or from watching other cats.

Some cats never learn or show any inclination to hunt. A hunter cat will learn by observing and then by trying out what it has seen. Cats don't hunt for food although they might eat all or part of their prey. They hunt as part of the glory of the sport. When returning to your home with the bounty of the hunt, your cat is really bringing back a trophy of its achievement.

Cats do not enjoy hard work and often spend around 16 to 18 hours of the day sleeping. Even when sleeping, a cat's brain is awake and on the alert for any signals of danger.

Cat sense

Your cat's senses are all fully tuned towards exploration, stalking and hunting. Eyesight, hearing and sense of smell are far more acute than those of human beings. Cats are known to have picked up on volcanic eruptions before they have actually taken place.

Their ears are brilliant at picking up high sounds and detecting subtle variations in tone. Their eyes are most effective at night – hence a cats preference to nocturnal hunting. A cat will rely heavily on its sense of smell and will sniff any food before deciding to eat it. Cats have a strong sense of touch, particularly through whiskers and on the pads of their feet. Cats have fewer taste buds than humans, which must truly be a blessing in disguise when munching on a dead mouse.

A cat is a highly intelligent animal that can work out problems and apply different methods and solutions to each event. They can summon humans by rattling objects as well as by calling out.  They can scoop up food from tins and packaging, open doors by jumping for the handle, find their way home from long distances away and respond when their name is called out. They can even observe and copy human behavior.

All cats are territorial and will leave their mark by spraying urine and by scratching visual signals. This is usually done on trees or fences. The act of scratching will also leave their scent in the location - another way of marking their territory. Even an indoor cat will mark its territory in a certain room or on a favorite piece of furniture.

Note that cats can be kept indoors, but they may become bored, lonely and depressed. If this happens, the owner may need to provide things to play with. These may include a scratching post, some toys, and a higher place for kitty to climb up to. Cats feel safer up high, and they love to look down and survey their kingdom below.

Cat communication

Cats will meet other cats on common ground. They have their own set of rules for these encounters. Their way of greeting is to sniff the head or beneath the tail of another cat. These areas are where scent glands are found, and this seemingly routine sniff test reveals a great deal of unique information about the cat being sniffed.

Cats will communicate with human beings in several different ways: contented purrs when all is well, disgruntled mews when feeling neglected, and spine-tingling screeches when upset or in anguish. A cat usually purrs when it feels secure and content, and often while sleeping. A meow is a sound for many purposes: it can be an order, a simple greeting or a notification.

A cat will often rub up against a human as a way of marking what it sees as its territory. There is most probably some sort of affection, trust or love involved here, or at least we like to think so. Like all good poker players, cats have few facial expressions and these can be difficult to read. Some cat people think they can read their cat like a book. Little do they know, this is exactly what their cat wants them to think.

Cats also rely heavily on scent for identification as well as for communication purposes. In fact, modern cleaning can remove the smells from a cat's environment which can lead to confusion and angst. Scratching is also a tool of communication as well as being used to mark their territory and to keep their claws in good condition. A cat will sometimes knead or press paws into your body, suggesting that it is contented and that it’s showing you affection.

Understanding your cat's behavior can be like encountering a space alien. The experience is profound, but you have no idea what this creature has planned for you. So go ahead and talk to, pet, groom and play with your feline companion. Give it time and space to do its cat things. Make sure it has opportunities to sleep, run, climb and hide. Whether you fully understand your cat’s behavior or haven’t the slightest clue about it, you can count yourself among the lucky ones. You have been chosen.

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