Animal Psychology Module 9

When You’ve Had It With Your Cat

What you will learn in this module:

9.1 Catnaps

9.2 Catnip

9.3 Flehmening

9.4 Greeting

9.5 Bringing gifts

9.6 Eating grass

9.7 Removing food from bowl

9.8 Mad dashing

9.9 Burying food

9.10 Do cats grieve?

9.1 Catnaps

Cats are crepuscular, which means they are at their most active between dusk and dawn. Concentrated around dusk and dawn when the light is dim. In between, during the deep dark night and the bright light of day they are less active. Cats like their sleep; no surprise to owners. They often take most of their sleep during the day and begin to get active as dusk approaches. They can sleep 15 to 20 hours a day in total; more than any other mammal.

As they are natural predators, they still have the instinct to hunt at night and many do. Indoor cats can be in the habit of prowling around their home during the night, which can be bothersome to some owners who get disturbed. They can get particularly playful in the evenings and again early in the morning. They treat many sleeping owners to a gentle hint that they are ready for fun and breakfast!

When they nap during the day, like humans, they have varied sleep patterns. Their brain waves have been recorded by EEG (electroencephalograph) and show two distinct patterns of activity. When awake, the cat’s brain broadcasts little bunched-together irregular peaks. When they are dozing, they produce long, irregular waves – slow wave sleep. This pattern can last from 15 to 30 minutes. During this pattern, the cat is usually lying with their head upright, resting on their paws. Sometimes, the cat actually sleeps sitting up – their muscles stiffen to keep them upright. This is useful for being ready to spring into action at any moment!

When the cat moves from light into deep sleep, their body relaxes more and they will stretch out and roll onto their side. The brain pattern changes; the waves become smaller and closer together known as rapid sleep, and resemble the awake brain pattern. This is a deeper sleep and the cat does not waken as easily. It only lasts about 5 minutes after which they will return to lighter, slow wave sleep. The cat may alternate between these two patterns during a long bout of sleep. Kittens under a month old skip the light sleep and go straight for the deep rapid pattern. Cats do appear to dream during rapid sleep judging by twitching paws and the occasional cat call!

Being a predator and keeping a strong instinct to protect themselves, their senses continue to record sounds and scents during most of their sleep, about 70%. The sniff of a mouse or squeak of a rat could easily awaken them. As cats develop a bond with people and get used to our routines, their sleep patterns will adjust. They will be awake to spend more quality time with loved ones, and also to coincide with feeding times. They do not like bad weather and will sleep more on these days.

9.2 Catnip

Catnip, botanical name Nepeta Cataria, is a plant; an herb from the mint family. It has a square, hairy stalk, and grayish green leaves that are heart-shaped with scalloped edges. It has a notorious reputation for getting cats high! There are a few varieties – true catnip, camphor catnip, lemon catnip, and Greek catnip. It is a native plant of Europe and Asia. It became naturalized in North America and Canada when it was introduced by the colonists in the 1600s. ‘Nepeta’ is thought to come from Naples, and ‘Cataria’ from the Latin word for cat.

This plant contains an essential oil called nepetalactone in the leaves and stems. This is the active ingredient that causes a hallucinogenic effect on cats. Some people say the effects would be something like that of LSD on humans, others say it is more like marijuana. We do not recommend you try it though!

After sniffing or eating it, cats show a variety of behaviors including playing, chasing, and hunting. Some say that the cat is responding to the release of feel good pheromones which are similar to those released during cat courtship. This would explain the sometimes sexual like behavior they display, such as rolling around. More typical responses are sniffing, chewing, licking, head shaking, and chin, cheek and body rubbing. They can also drool, stretch, jump, get a little aggressive, and be hyperactive.

Not all cats are affected by it though; only 50 to 60% succumb to its charms, and the degree of the effect also varies. Nature cleverly protects kittens from the effects of catnip by giving them a natural aversion to the smell of catnip. Cats in the wild and domestic cats enjoy it. The effects do not last long, usually between 5 and 10 minutes.

It has been discovered that catnip is actually an insect repellent effectively discouraging mosquitoes and cockroaches. It does not cause any harm to your cat so you do not need to worry about protecting them. Most cats seem to know when they have had enough. Some pet stores actually sell toys and treats containing catnip.

9.3 Flehmening

This habit is when a cat distorts their face and curls back their lips baring their upper and lower teeth. It allows more freedom for aromas to be recorded and decoded in the Jacobsen’s organ that is located in two sacs on the roof of the mouth. This would be a very useful gesture in the wild when a cat needs to know exactly what other prey or predators are close by. It is not a necessary habit in domesticated cats but you still may see it now and again. The Jacobsen’s organ is connected to the part of the brain that controls appetite and sexual behavior.

9.4 Greeting

Cats often greet each other by rubbing faces. When your cat stretches up on their hind legs, they could be trying to reach your face to greet you in a similar way. If you lower your face and hold it near theirs, they will probably do this. They will only greet trusted people with this honor.

Another friendly way a cat greets people is to roll onto their back, stretch their legs out, yawn, and extend their claws. This belly-up position is a very vulnerable one for the cat, so they will only offer it to the trusted few. This is a more relaxed type of greeting.

Some cats rub their heads on your legs or clothing as a greeting trying to transfer scent glands from the temples and mouth area. It is their way of telling other cats that you belong to them.

9.5 Bringing Gifts

Being predators, it is a natural behavior for a cat to kill prey and sometimes they will bring a prize catch home to you. In the same way as a mother cat shows her kittens how to hunt, this is your cat’s way of teaching you. They may very well see you as a rubbish hunter. In their eyes, you don’t do any successful hunting. If the cat brings live catch and eats it in front of you, this is not to disgust you. Moreover, it is to show you how it is done, as if you are a member of their family and need to be trained.

The cat may also be bringing you a gift as they would to a member of their cat family in the wild. Try to hide any feelings of shock, upset or anger if your cat does this. They do not understand that there is anything wrong with it, and it could create anxiety if you punish them. What they will probably expect is for you to be pleased and to praise them. Even if you find it difficult, try to oblige and discreetly dispose of the ‘gift’.

9.6 Eating Grass

There are two explanations why cats eat grass. Like dogs, they seem to know it is a good digestive aid. Cats often eat grass and a short time later vomit. This is not for nutritional value. It is low in nutrition and  mostly indigestible for cats as in humans. They do not have the enzyme needed to digest it. They eat it so the fiber will help to induce regurgitation of indigestible contents such as a fur ball.

In the wild, cats can nibble on grass blades between bouts of eating prey. Creatures like mice can be awkward to separate, and it can help expel little bones or fur by getting wrapped around them. The digestive system then responds to this indigestible food and the cat vomits it up. It is a safer way to get rid of potentially dangerous things like sharp bone pieces rather than letting them pass through the intestines.

Indoor cats that do not have access to grass might make do with house plants instead. Once you know why, it is easier to understand. You will not feel like they are eating your plants to be naughty or because they are bored. Maybe you could grow some grass in an indoor pot?

9.7 Removing Food From The Bowl

Some cats like to take pieces of food out of the feeding bowl and eat them from the floor instead. This can be because their whiskers are touching the sides of the bowl and it may feel uncomfortable. It may also be because the cat wants to have more space to take larger pieces and break them up into more cat-bite-sized pieces.

9.8 Mad Dashing

This happens mostly with indoor cats and could be their way of releasing abundant levels of energy. They charge around, jumping on and off furniture, and looking quite wild. It often happens late at night, mostly in younger cats although sometimes in older ones too.

9.9 Burying Food

This might look like a strange behavior when it is done on your kitchen floor. The cat will look like they are trying to scrape the floor near their bowl with their front paws. The cat might start pushing the bowl around. This is not because they do not like their food. It is more likely  that they do not feel that they need it all right at that time, and wants to bury it. Remember, cats like to eat little and often. They are not always up for eating a big meal all at once.

Unlike dogs, cats are not scavengers. Therefore, it is not an attempt to save the food and dig it up to eat at another time. Their instinct to bury what they do not need is to prevent any nearby predators from smelling the food, and being attracted to their patch.

This is a totally harmless habit. However, if it becomes an obsession you might try dissuading the cat by giving smaller portions of food. As soon as the cat seems to be satisfied, take away the bowl, clean up any spills, and give them fresh water. You could also give food in a puzzle feeder to satisfy their natural instinct to hunt for food. Another tip is to distract the cat with playtime.

Some cats like to drop their favorite toys in their water or food bowl. This seems to be a playtime activity.

9.10 Do Cats Grieve?

It is unlikely that cats understand the full meaning of death in the same way we do. However, it is absolutely true that they show distinct signs of grief when a relationship is lost. Cats are very sensitive creatures who are capable of forming close bonds. Moreover, it is understandable that they will feel the emotion of a lost love. A cat who has had a close relationship with another cat that died may suffer that loss very obviously. Similarly, if they are closely bonded with a particular person who, for some reason or another, is suddenly gone they can struggle to come to terms with the loss. It may happen when someone or another animal dies, when a student moves away to college, or a spouse moves out.

If you have more than one cat, the hierarchy will change when one dies. This can sometimes be a good change for the one that is left behind if they now assume a more privileged position.

The first stage of grief is called “activation.” This is when the cat will look for the missing companion. Some symptoms are:

  • Pacing around the home looking for their missing companion.
  • Crying out, trying to get a response.

After this initial stage, your pet might move into “depression.” Here is how to recognize it:

  • Loss of appetite. If this does not resolve quickly ask your vet for help as it can lead to health problems.
  • Lethargy.
  • Moping – being lifeless and depressed.
  • Withdrawal – showing little or no interest in things they normally would respond to.
  • Being extra attached to you or looking for an unusual amount of attention.
  • Showing signs of separation anxiety. (See Module 10)

How you can help your grieving cat:

  • Speak with a reassuring tone of voice at times when you think the cat is feeling grief, as long as they are happy to engage.
  • Offer lots of stroking, cuddling, petting, and playtime. Senior cats seem to feel grief most intensely – be ready to offer large doses of tender, loving care.
  • Allow them space in a quiet atmosphere when they make it clear they want it.
  • If they are off their food, offer some particular favorites or something especially tasty. Warm it up.
  • Keep their routine as normal as possible.
  • Use Homeopathy and Bach flower remedies. They work really well on animals.

Should you get a new pet? Getting a new pet can help but allow some time for grieving first. Even if the new pet arrives, they will still go through the grief for the lost companion. If you know a companion pet is going to die, introduce the new pet before this happens. It is a good idea to let your cat sniff the dead pet as animals have a natural understanding of death, and this will make sense at some level.

Well Done!