Cats are curious creatures and those of us who are fortunate enough to share our homes with them know just how much they enrich our lives. Developing a strong bond with our feline family members depends in large part upon understanding why they behave the way they do. Hopefully this article will help uncover some of the mystery behind what makes them tick.
Cats are solitary hunters and obligate carnivores. This means that in order to stay healthy, they must be fed a meat-based diet no matter what. In the wild they spend a good deal of their time hunting for prey so indoor cats need an outlet for play that enables them to express these behaviors. Wand toys, cat dancers, and laser pointers all give them something to stalk and chase as well as providing quality time with their owners. It is important to remember that allowing them to catch the toy or tossing them a treat at the end of play will signify a successful hunt and help prevent them from feeling frustrated. At meal time, putting food in interactive feeders, such as puzzle toys or food balls, or hiding treats around the house encourages them to work for their food and increases their environmental enrichment.
Cats are designed to catch and eat frequent small meals. Owners need to understand that fixed meal feeding is not natural. In the wild, cats typically consume 10-20 small prey items throughout the course of a day. In most cases, it wouldn’t be practical to follow a similar schedule at home but owners should avoid leaving a food bowl out at all times and should try to break up meals into smaller more frequent feedings whenever possible. Also, since cats do not have a strong thirst drive it is best for them to consume a good portion of canned food, which has a similar water content to prey.
Cats are a territorial species. Unless they hang out with other cats in the household by choice, they prefer to eat alone and should have separate resources, including beds and litter boxes. If a cat’s territory is limited and confined indoors, owners should provide tunnels, cat trees, and/or shelves that provoke exploration and give them places to hide if necessary. Some territorial scent marking such as urination and scratching can be a sign that a cat does not feel safe.
Cats are highly sensitive to smells. Changes to the familiar scent profile of the home can cause increased anxiety and behavioral problems. If an otherwise healthy cat starts urinating outside the litter box, household cleaners and deodorizers, new furniture, and visiting people or animals should all be considered possible culprits. All cats scent mark in some ways but when they are content with their surroundings they usually display milder signals such as rubbing their face on objects.
Cats are self-reliant, emotional, and highly aware. Despite our desire to express our love for them, they may not wish to be confined or reassured by cuddling. Like humans, cats have unique personalities and some of them will never be the kind to sit on their owners’ laps. They do not learn through punishment so the best way to teach them is through positive reinforcement or reward based training. If a cat is engaging in an undesired behavior, the appropriate response would be to ignore or redirect the behavior. Tossing a treat in the opposite direction is a great way to distract them from what they are doing. Cats thrive on routine and predictability, which can reduce stress and improve their quality of life. They are excellent at hiding illness and pain because, in the wild, their survival depends upon it. They tend to stay still and quiet so as not to attract attention. This is why it is so important to bring them in for annual checkups.
Perhaps it is the sensitive and sometimes temperamental nature of cats that draws us to them the most. In many ways, they may remind us of ourselves. As long as we are tuned in to their needs, they will feel comforted and fulfilled and there will be harmony in the household.
Dr. Tiffany Wright joined Sunnyvale Veterinary Clinic in 2004. She has a special fondness for felines and is a leader in staff and client education about feline medicine and behavior. Read more about Dr. Wright here.