Understanding Your Cat

By April 23, 2021 No Comments

To understand cats, we must first understand how they behave in their natural environment. Even if your cat lives indoors, its behaviours result from their survival value in the wild. In their natural environment, cats hunt for food, hide from predators (often by climbing), and defend their home territories. Indoors, these behaviours may look hostile (biting and scratching) or spiteful (climbing and marking), and we may not like them.

The keys to enjoying cats in our lives are to:


  1. provide acceptable outlets for their natural behaviours, and
  2. reduce their exposure to threats.

The following paragraphs describe natural behaviours of cats, and how the indoor environment can be modified to permit cats to engage in them in appropriate ways.

Cats, unlike dogs and other domestic animals, are not a pack or herd species, which explains a lot about their behaviour, Pack species that are predators are mostly group hunters of large prey, whereas the prey species, cattle and horses for example, developed groups for self-protection. In contrast cats are solitary hunters of small prey. This strategy resulted in important differences in cat behaviour, which has been carefully studied. we can use our understanding of cat behaviour to improve the environment of the indoor cats that share our lives.

1. Cats do not have the daily sleep-wake cycle that we and many other animals have. Rather, they sleep and wake frequently throughout the day and night. This is because cats in the wild need to hunt as many as 20 small prey each day: they must be able to rest between each hunt so they are ready to pounce quickly when prey approaches. This explains why our cats seem to sleep so much during the day when we are awake, and spend so much time awake at night when we need to sleep! We may conclude that cats are nocturnal creatures, but it only seems that way because their sleep/wake cycle is so different from ours. Adding playful activities to your cat’s daily routine can diminish the occurrence of such nocturnal activity.

2. Dogs are cats’ most common nautral predator in the wild. This is not to say, however, that cats and dogs cannot live amicably together in your home! Cats also may be afraid of other cats, of humans (if not properly socialized), and loud noises such as thunder, automobiles, and lawnmowers. Fearful cats generally have dilated pupils, flattened ears, a flattened or crouched body, and a fast breathing rate. If threatened further, they may hiss or growl, arch their back and puff up their fur, and may even attack.

3. Cats try to hide when they are anxious or feel threatened. They especially like to hide in high places, which permit a clear view of their surroundings. This is why it is especially important to provide indoor cats with hiding areas: these spots must permit the cat to feel safe from people, loud noises and other animals. If it is not safe for your cat to hide on top of the refridgerator, ect., then you will need to provide some other high location for your cat to hide in, such as a climbing tower or closet shelf.

4. Cats are not as social as many other species and they do not communicate in the same ways we do. Contrary to what people believe, cats primarily rely on smell, not sight, to communicate with other cats, locate food, and detect predators. Cats communicate by “marking” objects and other animals. These marks are scents (called pheromones) released from special glands located in their forehead, cheek, tail base, and paws when they scratch and rub their bodies on objects. Cats also do not rely too much on sounds from other cats, so they do not pay particular attention to the verbal sounds we humans make. Allowing your cats to mark scratching posts and other appropriate objects in the home will reduce the temptation for them to mark using urine. It is important that indoor cats have enough litter in a clean litter box to hide urine scents after covering. In the wild, cats urinate in new clean spots all the time; if we want them to use the same spot each time we have to keep it clean!

5. Cats are carnivores; they primarily eat small rodents, birds, and bugs. Because hunting is such a big part of a cat’s life, even indoor cats want to engage in hunting types of activity. Keep this in mind when shopping for toys for your cat; most prefer those that resemble mice, birds, and bugs. If you really want to make it realistic, make the toy move like it really is alive!

6. Cats establish their home hunting ranges by scent marking them. Males will physically defend their ranges from other males, but females usually share or overlap their home range with other females. The size of a home range or territory can be up to 6km2 (~20 city blocks). Because cats in the wild hunt small prey, they tend to lead solitary lives so each cat gets enough to eat. If a food resource is very plentiful, cats may live in small groups, 2-25, consisting mainly of females. Male cats generally live alone regardless of food source, because they also complete with other males for mates.

7. Cats can be aggressive when defending territories, fearful when threatened, engage in play behaviour with one another (especially as kittens), and groom each other throughout adulthood. Mothers and other females in their group raise the kittens. Kittens begin to sample the mother’s kill while still nursing, and begin to hunt alone at 8 to 16 weeks of age. They generally rest and groom together with their mothers until they are 6 to 12 months old. Adult males patrolling the mother’s home range usually evict the juvenile males; juvenile females may leave if food resources are low. Adults establish their own home territory (range), and may be dominate or subordinate within the parts of their range that overlap that of other cats.

8. Sometimes cats play a little too hard and may scratch or bite you. You can teach your cat to inhibit this inappropriate play behaviour by leaving the area when your cat is not playing nicely!

9. Outdoor cats experience a wide range of temperatures. Since cats, cannot sweat very well, they learn to seek shade in warm temperatures, and warmth in cold temperatures. Indoor cats use shade, fans, bedding and blankets to regulate their temperatures throughout the year.

10. Most cats are so good at grooming themselves they do not need baths to stay clean. Longhaired (if the hair mats), obese, or sick cats may need extra combing and brushing. While cats in the wild do not have this luxury, you can help your cat stay healthy and clean if he struggles to do it for himself.

Tips To Keep Your Cat Happy

To be at their best, cats have some basic needs; providing them will help ensure your cat’s long-term health and welfare. If these needs are not met, your cat may feel stressed, which, can affect both health and behaviour. Listed here are things an “ideal” house for cats might include. Your cat(s) might not need all these features to get along, but making your house more “cat friendly” will ensure that you and your cat enjoy each other’s company for years to come.

The MOST IMPORTANT fact for cat owners to understand is that cats DO NOT respond to force, and that they DO respond to praise! Reprimands only work if you catch you cat “in the act”. Punishment that follows an action by more than a few seconds won’t stop him from doing it again, and may even cause him to be afraid of you or the surroundings. If you do catch your cat making a mistake, it is better for both of you to create a distraction by making a loud noise or throwing something (NOT at the cat!) that will attract its attention, but not toward you.

Provide a room or other space she can call her own, complete with food and water, a bed (a cat carrier with a soft pad inside is a good choice), a litter box, a scratching/climbing post, a window to look out of, and some toys.

Place food and the litter boxes away from appliances and air ducts that could come on unexpectedly, and locate them such that another animal (or human!) cannot sneak up on the cat while she uses them. To keep them appealing to the cats, food and water should be fresh, and the litter box “scooped” every day.

Give her something to scratch on to ensure that she can “do her thing” without damaging your things. Praise her profusely when you see her use it to let her know that this is hers to use.

Provide places to climb and look out of windows to help keep your indoor cat(s) healthy and happy.

Cats seem to prefer to feel like they are “in control” of their surroundings, and to choose the changes they want to make. When you make changes (food, litter, toys, ect.), offer them in a separate container next to the familiar one so your cat can decide whether or not to change.

Be sure to see your veterinarian regularly. In addition to providing preventative health care through regular check-ups, they also can help you troubleshoot any “issues” before they become problems.

If you have any questions regarding the health care of your cat please call or visit us online.

Dr. Fussell, Dr. Murray and your Veterinary Health Care Team

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