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Demystifying Cats

May 29, 2019

Our cats wear their domestication lightly and can sometimes seem mysterious. But living with cats to prevent and address behavior problems is easier once we learn some of their normal behaviors. This week let’s try to dive into our cats’ minds to better understand them.

Many of our domestic animals (dogs, horses, cattle, sheep/goats) are very social animals, while cats are more individualistic. Feral cats may form loose associations but their day to day behavior is that of solitary hunters. Cats have some unique needs that should be met to keep them happy and healthy both physically and mentally.

Cats’ sleep cycle is different than ours. They alternate shorter periods of sleeping and waking throughout the day and night rather than being active then sleeping for large chunks of time (although senior cats often shift to a sleep cycle where they sleep more soundly and for longer periods of time). This is closely tied to their hunting techniques: Unfed feral or wild cats hunt small prey frequently (up to 20 times per day), so they always need to be rested for the next hunt. This cycle can lead to cats waking us in the middle of the night or early morning when they are bored or hungry; they don’t need or understand a “good night’s sleep”! Playing with toys that simulate hunting (“fishing pole” type toys, laser pointer) and putting out a food-dispensing toy at your own bedtime can help fulfill this need to periodically wake and hunt and let you sleep uninterrupted.

Cats need hiding places to feel safe. This includes both secure hidden spaces to retreat to when they feel stressed and tall vantage points that allow them a clear view of their environment. For multiple cat households, it is especially important to have abundant options to choose from. Tall cat trees, sturdy window or wall perches, or tops of counters or appliances (if allowed and safely accessible in your household) are all options for vantage points. Boxes, cubbies, enclosed cat beds, or arranging furniture to create spaces behind or underneath are all options for hiding places.

While they do have distinct body language and vocalizations, cats’ primary form of communication is smell. They mark by rubbing pheromones from special glands in the forehead, paws, cheeks, and tail base onto objects (or people!). Under conditions of stress or if they do not have access to appropriate scratching material, they may also mark with urine. Like Facebook status updates, marking communicates where a cat has been throughout the day and where their preferred places are.

Cats are carnivores who, if we didn’t feed them, would hunt frequently throughout the day. We can’t perfectly replicate this feeding pattern in our homes, but for cats who need more mental stimulation to stay happy and satisfied we can simulate it. Food dispensing toys, slow feeders, placing small caches of food around the house, or scattering pieces of kibble instead of feeding out of a bowl are all strategies to make cats feel a little bit like they are hunting. It is harder to do this in multiple cat households or with canned food, so do what you can do.

Elimination (urination and defecation) outside the litter box is one of the most common behavior problems in cats. There are several things to understand about normal elimination behavior that can help prevent and solve problems once medical problems have been ruled out.

In their minds, cats are still wild animals who need to stay safe from predators and they can feel very vulnerable when eliminating. They are in a slightly unstable posture and may not be able to react quickly to threats. Feral cats will choose places to eliminate with good visibility of the surrounding area and will eliminate in a new place each time to prevent being ambushed at a predictable location. Conversely, in our homes we often want litter boxes in out of the way places and our cats use the same litter boxes over and over. Many cats adapt fine, but some have very strong instincts that are at odds with our own preferences. In general, uncovered boxes with some visibility (for example, against a wall but not pushed into a corner) that are cleaned daily are preferred. For messy cats, a good alternative to a covered box is a tall clear storage container with a “door” cut into the side, so litter is contained but they can see their surroundings. In multiple cat households, there should be two separate locations for litter boxes so there is less chance of cats antagonizing each other on the way to or in the litter box.

Even indoor cats often have a home base territory within the home where they spend most of their “hanging out” time. For example, in my two-cat household one cat’s home base is our bedroom and the other cat’s home base is the basement. If you can identify each cat’s home base (think about the place you are most likely to find your cat at any random time), that is a place to make especially sure there are comfortable sleeping and hiding places available.

Cats are cats, and understanding them as best we can is the best way to stack the deck in our favor for happy, healthy household. As always, if you have questions please feel free to contact the clinic.

Karen Christopherson DVM CVA

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