Animal Psychology Module 7

What Is Normal Behaviour For A Cat?

What You Will Learn In This Module:

7.1 Domestication of cats

7.2 Lessons from kitten hood

7.3 Sharing the love!

7.4 How cats become social animals

7.5 Feeding habits

7.6 Retention of independence and feral instincts

7.7 Ageing

7.8 Exercising claws

7.9 Lap trampling

7.10 Burying feces

7.1 Domestication Of Cats

Most of the earliest evidence of the integration of cats into human society comes from Ancient Egypt where cats held many positions. Some were revered and worshiped and treated almost like gods. Others were offered as sacrifice and more were bred purely as rodent killers.

The first clear indications that cats were more than just animals living on the outskirts of human settlements, and included as pets, occurred again in Egypt around 4,000 years ago. Humans found the pack instincts of dogs useful thousands of years earlier – over 12,000 years ago. They helped with hunting, herding, tending to flocks of other animals, and for clearing pests. It was not until people started to cultivate and store grain in bulk that they realized the effectiveness of cats in keeping the grain free of rodents and other small pests. They then encouraged cats to integrate with human society.

This usefulness meant cats were transported from Africa, to many corners of the world, on ships that carried grain as the resident rodent killers. Farmers were soon impressed by the cat’s hunting prowess and welcomed them to their farms. They helped enormously in keeping crops and the general environment pest free. In turn, cats were made to feel at home with shelter, and scraps to feed on between kills.

Today, even though many people are still very happy to have cats around for the same purpose, the cat’s greatest role in human society is as a companion. As we have already mentioned in Module 1, as pets, cats outnumber dogs by about three to one. About one-third of US households and one-quarter of UK homes have one or more.

This rise in popularity of the cat as a pet could be a result of how we live our modern lives. Many people live in apartments and small house units with confined space that does not easily accommodate a dog, and the household members. Also, cats are much more independent, adaptable, and deal with being alone for long periods more easily than domesticated dogs. Possibly because they have been domesticated for a much shorter time but more likely due to their different nature. Cats have retained a much stronger connection to their feral instincts than dogs. They have not been subject to anywhere near the same level of reproductive control by humans through selective breeding as dogs.

Needing much less investment in time and money, the cat still provides the affection, companionship, love, and non-judgmental listening that so many people enjoy.

7.2 Lessons From Kitten Hood

Like puppies, the kittens first two weeks of life are completely about their interaction with mother cat. Their senses of sight and hearing are not yet responding so they rely on smell, touch and taste to feed from, and bond with her. From the third week on they begin to learn about the world around them as their eyes and ears begin to open and function. As the next few weeks go by they learn to walk, run, and spend their time between sleeping and suckling. They do lots of playing through which they learn many things. At first, this is just with siblings and then progresses to curiosity and engagement with objects around them.

The most important developmental time for a kitten is between 3 and 9 weeks of age. Their brain is growing rapidly and they are learning about what is safe to interact with, and what is not. In the wild, this is when the mother would teach kittens about fending for themselves. First, by bringing back dead prey and then catching live prey so their predatory instincts are awakened. As mother’s milk decreases, play increases showing the link between play and the honing of skills for hunting.

Weaning starts at around four weeks old and is usually finished by eight weeks. However, kittens can benefit from being with their mother up to twelve weeks. In the wild, kittens still interact with their litter-mates and nearby litters up to at least 6 months old. They will sleep in direct contact with, and groom family members. Domesticated cats housed together who were not litter-mates do not usually do this.

7.3 Sharing The Love!

If you ever wanted evidence that contradicts the opinion that cats are elusive and fickle about giving and receiving love, here are some. A nursing cat is so willing to nurture, she will quite easily accept kittens that are not hers and raise them as her own.Animal rescue shelters know this, and it has saved many an orphaned kitten.

In cat colonies, it has been observed that newly birthed mother cats who are related can get together, and pool the nursing of their combined litters. Scientists relate this to the production of oxytocin, the same hormone that a human mother produces every time she breastfeeds her baby.

Another interesting reason mother cat and kittens can be so trusting in early life is that up to two weeks of age, kittens do not have the ability to produce stress hormones like adrenalin. So, early life with mom is peachy!

7.4 How Cats Become Social Animals

The shaping of a cat’s personality is powerfully influenced by early experiences. A kitten that is raised with a relaxed, ever present, well fed mother has the opportunity to develop without stress, have finely honed skills, and will see the world as a safe place. A kitten that was abandoned by its mother, and hand raised by a human, may remain dependent on attention from this person. A kitten whose mother struggled to find food and raise it will expect a more uncertain world. They will have developed the skills they need to live on by using their wits, and competing with litter-mates to survive. This leads to a more finely tuned and reactive cat as a pet.

For cats to be ideal pets it seems that socialization with humans and litter-mates is the best combination during the first three to eight weeks. Kittens from a litter of one tend to be more aggressive with other cats than those who have learned the boundaries of social behavior among a big litter. Kittens who have had lots of positive interaction with humans at this stage learn to accept and trust people more willingly than those who don’t. Cats, like dogs, have the capacity for multiple socialization opportunities to become trusting and friendly to other species as well as to their own. Other young animals, if raised by humans, may appear to replace socialization within its own species for attachments to humans.

Introducing a kitten to a wide variety of people between three and eight weeks of age, while in the litter with their mother, seems to be the best way to prepare a kitten for being an ideally socialized cat.

It prevents the strong attachment to one person and enables them to build an acceptance, and trust of people in general. Even if kittens had a less than ideal start, careful, increased levels of handling, and loving attention from people, up to their first birthday, can make a big difference in helping them be comfortable with people.

The longer the number of contact minutes daily as a kitten, the longer the same cat, as an adult, will spend interacting with a person.

7.5 Feeding Habits

Though many owners like to think of their cats as their little tigers, they are actually believed to have descended from small African wildcats. Similar to the ones shown in Egyptian drawings, rather than the larger type of wildcat such as the lion or tiger. Therefore, they have different feeding habits.

Since they tend to prey on smaller animals, they feed frequently throughout the day on small amounts. These cats, when in the wild, are pretty solitary and do not feel the need to eat in a hurry due to competition from other cats.

If yours is an outdoor cat, you may see evidence of her hunting for her own food. When cats kill prey, they do not always eat their catch straight away. This is partly due to the lack of feeling any competition for food, and also seems to come from a self-preservation instinct – in case an injury might occur if there is any fight left in the prey. If they are well fed then they might bring it back to you as a gift.

In a household where there are a number of cats, dominant cats can intimidate lower ranking cats, and restrict their access to food. In this case, feed cats in separate areas so that you can supervise how much food each cat gets. Cats prefer to eat small amounts, and often. They would probably choose to have the food available for them so they could come and go as they please. Moreover, it is preferable to control how much food they get so you can make sure they do not gain too much weight.

7.6 Retention Of Independence And Feral Instincts

As cats have been pets for a shorter time than dogs and have been encouraged to keep their predatory instincts throughout domestication, they tend to naturally want a more outdoor, self-sufficient life. Even cats who are kept indoors keep to a world of their own to a certain extent. Biologists consider that the 4,000 or so years since cats started to become domesticated is not long enough for their brains and sensory abilities to have changed. Therefore, cats still have extremely keen hearing, vision, and sense of smell. Their sometimes bizarre behavior might be explained as a response to something they sense that we are incapable of detecting. These bahviors may include keeping low to the ground, a fixed posture and gaze, tail swishing gently at the tip, feet paddling, shifting weight, and pouncing.

Cats do not respond to the same level of control as dogs do. Most dogs show an eager willingness to behave according to how owners dictate, and accept ranking with a little training. Cats do not buy into the dominance/submission arrangement as agreeably. If we try, it is likely to lead the cat to be fearful or aggressive. It is better to adopt the ‘friends with benefits’ approach where neither party tries to control the other. While most dogs are happy to engage in an attached, affectionate way almost all of the time with their owners, cats initiate contact when it suits them – when they decide they would like affection, when they want to go outside, or when they are hungry.

7.7 Ageing

Cats generally live longer than dogs. A cat is considered senior from 8 years onward but can live for many more years. Naturally, age will take its toll on a cat:

  • Hearing and eyesight will deteriorate showing less sharpness, and their mobility and energy will also decrease.
  • Many cats can show reduced cognitive function leading to confusion and less capacity for comfortable social interactions.
  • They can become more withdrawn, nervous, and irritable.
  • They can react more stressful to changes around them.
  • Having been fully house-trained, they may start eliminating inappropriately.
  • They can start to wander more, and due to reduced homing and sensory ability they may get lost.

Some tips to help a cat through the elder years and minimize the effects:

  • Keep a regular routine, keep changes to a minimum, and if changes are happening try to introduce them slowly.
  • If a cat has to adjust to a new place, entice them to accept it by putting their favorite food there.
  • If the cat tends to wander, is forgetful, and less reactive, it might mean confining them indoors, especially at night. If they start to eliminate in areas that aren’t suitable, put the litter tray close to their favorite sleeping area but not near the feeding area. Try a tray with a cover. Also, check whether there are any medical reason like a decrease in bladder control.
  • Make sure their diet is of high quality, and is providing them with the necessary nutrients required for an older cat.
  • Keep up regular check-ups by your vet

Lastly, offer lots of love and affection when they are in the mood to receive!

7.8 Exercising Claws

Many people think this instinctive habit is to improve the sharpness of a cat’s claws.

This is not quite correct. What it does do is:

  • Helps encourage older claw sheaths that have become blunt to fall off and expose newly grown, sharper ones. You might find the old discarded ones near a favorite scratching place.
  • Helps exercise and strengthen the muscles that control the extension and retraction of the claws.
  • Scent marks the scratching area. There are scent glands between a cat’s toes, which secrete pheromones that are personal to each cat when they paddle them. Cats like to deposit these personal scents in areas where they already get their owners’ scent, probably an indication of the desire to bond. It explains why your cat might completely ignore the specially purchased scratching pole you bought. Putting some old clothing around it to transfer the scent might help convince them to use it!

7.9 Lap Trampling

All cat owners are familiar with this behavior that is similar to kneading bread dough. It is a slow, deliberate, and rhythmic motion of the front paws alternating from one to the other. They learned this action as kittens to stimulate the flow of milk to their mother’s nipples. Understandably, they might also drool while doing it. As a cat owner, you are in a way acting like a surrogate mother by providing food and comfort. Therefore, when your cat tramples they are acknowledging this relationship.

7.10 Burying Faeces

Unlike dogs, who try as much as possible to advertise themselves by scent marking, and leaving feces to give information to other dogs; many cats do the opposite – they bury their feces and pee in private, discreet places when out and about. This is a great blessing to owners of pet cats as it helps them to cooperate with using litter trays. It is not as popular with gardeners and non-cat owners who come across the buried surprises though!

Most domestic cats do this to disguise the odor, as it does similarly carry lots of information about them. They are not driven by the same desire to engage with, and dominate others of their species. There are some non-neutered, dominant male cats who will place their feces in an exposed place so the odor travels. Buried feces have a much more subtle odor.

Well Done!