By Rae Avery
Have you ever looked at your cat and wondered (or even said aloud), “Why do you do that?” Cats can seem affectionate, elegant, fierce, snobby and even laughably judgmental (sometimes all at once). They baffle us with a wide range of bizarre behavior that can actually be explained quite simply with science. Many of these unique actions are deeply embedded in their DNA and anatomy.
A lot of the seemingly crazy cat behavior can be explained by the “hunter instinct,” or the fact that before cats became domesticated pets (which historians believe was around 9,500 years ago), they had to fend for themselves in the wild like any other animal. At that time cats thrived on their own, hunting their own food, defending their family and territory, and naturally doing what it took to survive without the humans who would eventually invite them into their lives and homes. These half-buried instincts are what take your treasured pet from cuddling with you on the couch one moment to pouncing viciously after a mouse or bird (or toy) the next.
The instinct to defend their territory and home is what fuels a cat’s desire to roam and explore. When your cat leaves the house however, you may be surprised by the repetitive nature of his jaunts. A study done tracking the walking habits of cats showed that each cat’s “patrol” was roughly the distance of a neighborhood block surrounding his home, and that he would more or less take the exact same route to mark and guard his territory every single day. It’s worth noting that of all reasons cats get into the screaming fights you hear outside at night, perceived territory issues are the number one cause.
Cats have a ton of physical features that allow them to do amazing things. Cats can leap up to five times their own height, which helps when all they want to do is climb. Cats are very reflexive, intuitive animals – this could fuel the infamous myth that cats have nine lives. When falling from any height higher than 30 cm, cats can actually rotate their bodies midair to land on all fours. They owe this to an incredibly flexible spine. When falling from a dangerously high height, cats can extend their paws in all directions which helps them to “parachute” to the ground more slowly, resulting in a more gentle landing, and reducing risk of injury.
Cats are biologically designed with hypersensitive senses to help navigate the world around them. Cats have excellent hearing and their ears can swivel back on their heads (note: when your cat’s ears are swiveled back, this is a sign she is unhappy). They can hear one octave higher than a dog. A cat’s sense of smell is 1000 times better than a human’s. Whiskers serve an important purpose too. Located on your cat’s cheeks, above their eyes, and behind their paws, whiskers are actually full of blood vessels and nerve endings. They can help cats to maneuver through a dark room, determine if a space is too narrow to crawl through, and even help them locate prey in tall grass.
Somewhat social animals
Cats rely heavily on social signals to communicate with their humans and with other cats, and many of these social cues are learned or developed during the kitten stage. For example, kittens naturally greet their mother with a stick-straight, vertical tail (especially at mealtime, before cuddling in to nurse). As they grow up, they come to associate this gesture with warmth, food, and a cozy happiness, and will use the straight-up tail signal to offer friendship to a new cat. Cats also use a wide range of actions to communicate with their humans. If your cat looks you straight in the eye for a prolonged moment, this is a sign of trust. Your cat may nuzzle you with his head – this is considered “allogrooming” and is a sign of affection. If your cat begins to lick your hand with sandpapery kisses: congratulations! This “grooming” is a sign that the cat has accepted you as his own, and considers you family.
Cats can seem highly independent, especially when compared to other pets who require a ton of attention, like dogs. However, a cat’s need for attention, affection and care from his human should not be underestimated. If your cat has been urinating or defecating in places other than his litter box, it could be a sign of high stress or anxiety. Other classic signs your cat may be stressed include excessive grooming, excessive vocalization, and unusual destructive behavior. Studies show that these tend to occur more often when owners aren’t present, and could be symptomatic of separation anxiety.
Many cats still do live out on their own, whether they were abandoned by previous owners or they were born from a stray mother cat and thus lived their whole life outside or away from the care of people. Cats who have had no prior contact with humans before the age of 14 weeks are considered feral cats. It’s worth noting that feral cats are far more afraid, more aggressive and less trusting of any people who might approach them than those who grew up around people who took care of them. However, feral strays can sometimes become pets and adapt to life in a loving home, especially if they’re taken in as kittens. Veterinary care should be the top priority, as well as giving space to an animal who has lived their whole life independently. Forming a good bond with this new cat may take months or even years, and will require special care - this guide is packed with good info about taming a feral kitten.